Donald Trump’s allies are seeking out hydroxychloroquine and even trying risky substitutes for the anti-malaria drug as it has become an emblem of the president’s unorthodox approach to fighting coronavirus.
Trump has frequently touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the disease, asking potential patients in April “what have you got to lose?” But that enthusiasm took on an entirely new meaning Monday, when he claimed he’d been taking medication for “a couple of weeks.”
The revelation was starling. The FDA doesn’t recommend using hydroxychloroquine to treat—let alone prevent—COVID-19 outside of hospitals or clinical trials. In fact, the agency has warned that taking hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, can produce “abnormal heart rhythms,” particularly for people with heart or kidney disease. And a Veterans Affairs study of hydroxychloroquine found that the drug has no effect on COVID-19 and may actually increase mortality rates for patients.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump fans. On Tuesday, talk radio host and former Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka went further than Trump, announcing that he had been taking the drug in an attempt to avoid contracting COVID-19 for a month and posting a picture of his prescription bottle.
“Is it the miracle solution?” Gorka wondered in a video, before having his doctor on his radio show to discuss dosages.
Gorka isn’t alone. Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS), a doctor and Kansas Senate candidate, said Tuesday that he and several family members are taking hydroxychloroquine in an attempt to ward off the virus.
“I’m relieved President Trump is taking it,” Marshall said.
Fringe right-wing activist Michael Coudrey, who Trump has retweeted in the past, claimed on Twitter on Tuesday that he’s been taking the drug prophylactically for a month—and even claimed it’s helped his skin.
“My face is also very plush and vibrant,” Coudrey tweeted.
Amid criticism that he was subjecting himself to unproven and even dangerous medication, Trump defended his use of hydroxychloroquine on Tuesday, claiming that “what has been determined is it doesn't harm you.” Sitting beside him at the cabinet meeting, Trump’s HHS Secretary Alex Azar defended Trump’s approach by, in part, calling him the “right-to-try president”—a reference to a policy that allows patients with fatal diseases and little time to live the chance to take experimental medications.
But outside of the president’s circle, others were not so forgiving or, frankly, understanding. Former VA head David Shulkin, who ran the department in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2018, criticized Trump’s hydroxychloroquine praise on Tuesday, writing that the risks associated with the drug are “real.”
“I worry about the example being set and whether others may take the drug inappropriately,” Shulkin tweeted.
The enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine among Trump fans has taken on such broader meaning that it has even inspired criticism of competitors, including remdesivir, a more expensive drug that’s also being researched as COVID-19 treatment.
On Gorka’s show, his doctor claimed that hydroxychloroquine, which is available in cheap, generic versions, has been criticized because medical companies couldn’t make significant amounts of money from it. At The Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog that frequently runs hoaxes, writer Jim Hoft claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “sneered at less expensive and more effective hydroxychloroquine” while favoring “expensive” remdesivir.
“When the president mentions it, political proclivities could mean that people have a political agenda not to agree,” Gorka said on his show.
Other Trump fans desperate for hydroxychloroquine have turned to unconventional, potentially dangerous methods. Last week, promoters of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory—which posits that top Democrats run pedophile sex dungeons and eat children—boosted a “home recipe” for hydroxychloroquine that consisted of steeping various fruit rinds. While the recipe’s proponents claimed that it would help people avoid “big pharmas fillers,” the fruits suggested in the recipe, like grapefruit, could react dangerously with other medications.
That’s not the only dubious recipe for replicating hydroxychloroquine’s still-unproven effects. In April, a video from Missouri chiropractor Eric Nepute raging against “fake news” went viral, racking up more than 1 million views. In his video, Nepute claimed that people with COVID-19 symptoms should just drink Schweppes Tonic Water for the quinine, wrongly claiming that its effects were “similar-ish” to hydroxychloroquine.
As the debunking website Snopes pointed out, however, a litter of Schweppes has a fraction of the quinine recommended for anti-malarial use—much less for home-brewed treatments of COVID-19. To get that amount of quinine from a bottle of tonic, according to Snopes, would-be home practitioners would have to guzzle 25 liters of Schweppes a day for a week.
In the end, taking hydroxychloroquine preventively may have just become the latest culture war symbol of the Trump era. Lionel Lebron, a conservative media personality and QAnon conspiracy theorist who visited Trump in the White House in 2018, urged his fans to lie about taking the drug just to anger liberals.
“Tell everyone you’re taking it,” Lioenl tweeted. “Even if you’re not. Say you’re taking it via enema. A high colonic with a twist of lime.”