President Donald Trump said on Monday that he has been taking the unproven anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventive treatment for the coronavirus.
Recent studies have shown that the drug has little to no effectiveness in treating the virus, and the FDA has issued a warning regarding its potentially deadly side effects.
Speaking to reporters on Monday afternoon, the president took aim at ousted vaccine chief Dr. Rick Bright, who recently came forward with a whistleblower complaint about the Trump administration’s push of the controversial drug.
“A lot of doctors take it. I take it,” the president insisted at the White House on Monday afternoon, prompting shocked responses from the press corps. “I hope to not be able to take it soon, because you know, I hope they come up with some vaccine. I think people should be allowed to.”
Trump claimed he received a letter the other day from a New York doctor who alleged he has successfully treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients with a combo of the drug and azithromycin. He also complained about “phony reports” that showed the lack of efficacy of the drug in treating the coronavirus.
The report that Trump was grousing about appears to be the government-funded study of Veterans Affairs coronavirus patients who were treated with the drug, which found that it didn’t help the veterans and was actually associated with more deaths.
While the study wasn’t peer reviewed, it was backed by the National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia. Days later, the FDA issued a warning against prescribing the drug for the coronavirus outside of clinical trials and hospitals. The FDA’s April warning said that “serious and potentially life-threatening heart rhythm problems” have been reported in association with hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine.
“That report on the hydroxy is given to people that were in extraordinary bad condition. People that were dying. No, I think for whatever it is worth, I take it,” Trump said Monday. “I would have told you that three or four days ago, but we never had a chance, because you never asked me the question.”
Asked whether the White House physician recommended he take hydroxychloroquine, the president replied that he did bring it up with his doctor, adding that he let the physician know that he would like to take it.
“A lot of front-line workers are taking hydroxychloroquine,” the president exclaimed, adding: “I want the people of this nation to feel good. I don’t want them being sick. And there is a very good chance that this has an impact, especially early on.”
In a memo to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany released later Monday evening, Trump’s physician Sean Conley said he’d had “numerous discussions” with the president about “the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine.”
“We concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks,” Conley wrote, without confirming that he’d prescribed the medication or whether Trump is currently taking it.
“In consultation with our inter-agency partners and subject matter experts around the country, I continue to monitor the myriad studies investigating potential COVID-19 therapies,” he continued, “and I anticipate employing the same shared medical decision making based on the evidence at hand in the future.”
A spokesperson for Trump said he had been prescribed the medication and has been taking it.
While encouraging other Americans to take the drug—despite multiple studies showing it has no real efficacy and sometimes deadly side-effects—the president also denied that he was taking it because he’d been exposed.
Pressed to explain what the preventive effect of the drug was since he insisted he wasn’t taking it due to exposure to the virus, Trump said his evidence was that he gets “a lot of positive calls about it” while adding that he’s been taking it for nearly two weeks.
“I take a pill every day,” Trump said. “At some point, I’ll stop. What I would like to do is I’d like to have the cure and/or the vaccine. And that will happen, I think, very soon. Zero symptoms.”
Immediately after Trump made his stunning disclosure, Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto directly warned Fox viewers that they shouldn’t listen to the leader of the free world advising them to take the potentially dangerous treatment.
“The fact of the matter is, though, when Trump said what do you got to lose, in a number of studies the vulnerable population have one thing to lose, their lives,” Cavuto somberly said during his Fox News broadcast. “I cannot stress enough: This will kill you!”
While Cavuto was sounding the alarm on the drug and the fact that it is not a proven treatment, Fox News host Laura Ingraham has continued to hype hydroxychloroquine as a potential game changer on her primetime program—even as the rest of her colleagues had backed away from promoting it in recent weeks.
Scientists first began to consider that hydroxychloroquine could be used against COVID-19 based on research on primate cells that showed chloroquine has some antiviral effects against SARS, which is caused by another coronavirus.
Early anecdotal evidence from China added to the buzz surrounding the drug and the World Health Organization included it among a handful of possible therapeutics to study for effectiveness against the disease. By March, a combination of celebrity endorsements from the likes of Elon Musk and media attention to a controversial French study by Dr. Didier Raoult added to the hype behind the disease.
President Trump stunned viewers and scientists that month by getting out ahead of research and evidence to recommend the drug despite warnings from Dr. Anthony Fauci that there was only anecdotal support for its effectiveness.
“I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know, smart guy,” he said.
Fox News has seized on the president’s enthusiasm for both hydroxychloroquine, a variant of chloroquine known to have fewer side effects, and chloroquine, adding to the hype around the unproven treatment. Sean Hannity prominently featured claims from Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a New York physician who claimed to have successfully cured patients of COVID-19 with a combination of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, and zinc.
Despite the early interest in the drug, health-care providers around the world have grown more cautious about the drug due to concerns about its effectiveness and possible side effects. The state of Utah canceled a large order for the drug and scrapped plans to make it available over the counter while hospitals in France and Sweden stopped making the drug available because of its potentially dangerous cardiac side effects.
Randomized control trials of the drug are still underway to test its effectiveness against COVID-19 but a number of observational studies have shown little to no benefit to the drug thus far. The British Medical Journal published a study of 181 patients who required oxygen without the need for admission to an intensive care unit and found the lack of benefit over standard care does not “support its use in patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 who require oxygen.”
In March, the Quinism Foundation—which promotes awareness of the disorders tied to quinoline—warned that antimalarial quinolines can cause “sudden and lasting neuropsychiatric effects” when used against the novel coronavirus.
“In susceptible individuals, these drugs act as idiosyncratic neurotoxicants, potentially causing irreversible brain and brainstem dysfunction, even when used at relatively low doses,” said Dr. Remington Nevin, a psychiatric epidemiologist. “This drug-induced dysfunction causes a disease of the brain and brainstem called quinoline encephalopathy, or quinism, which can be marked acutely by psychosis, confusion, and risk of suicide, and by lasting psychiatric and neurological symptoms.”
The CDC has since pulled earlier guidance for physicians on how to prescribe the drug for COVID-19 patients in favor of a shorter statement asserting that it remains under study.