President Donald Trump emphatically defended himself Tuesday against criticism from medical experts that his announced use of a malaria drug against the coronavirus could spark wide misuse by Americans of the unproven treatment with potentially fatal side effects.
Trump’s revelation a day earlier that he was taking hydroxychloroquine caught many in his administration by surprise and set off an urgent effort by officials to justify his action. But their attempt to address the concerns of health professionals was undercut by the president himself.
He asserted without evidence that a study of veterans raising alarm about the drug was “false” and an “enemy statement,” even as his own government warned that the drug should be administered for COVID-19 only in a hospital or research setting.
“If you look at the one survey, the only bad survey, they were giving it to people that were in very bad shape,” Trump said. That was an apparent reference to a study of hundreds of patients treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs in which more of those in a group who were administered hydroxychloroquine died than among those who weren’t.
“They were very old. Almost dead,” Trump said. “It was a Trump enemy statement.” During a Cabinet meeting, he elicited a defense of his practice from other officials, including VA Secretary Robert Wilkie who noted that the study in question was not conducted by his agency.
But the drug has not been shown to combat the virus in a multitude of other studies as well. Two large observational studies, each involving around 1,400 patients in New York, recently found no COVID benefit from hydroxychloroquine. Two new ones published last week in the medical journal BMJ reached the same conclusion.
No large, rigorous studies have found the drug safe or effective for preventing or treating COVID-19.
Trump said he decided to take hydroxychloroquine after two White House staffers tested positive for the disease, but he already had spent months promoting the drug as a potential cure or preventive despite the cautionary advice of many of his administration’s top medical professionals.
“This is an individual decision to make,” Trump told reporters during a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans. He later claimed, “It’s gotten a bad reputation only because I’m promoting it.”
Many studies are testing hydroxychloroquine for preventing or limiting coronavirus illness but “at this point in time there’s absolutely no evidence that this strategy works,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious-disease specialist at Emory University in Atlanta.
“My concern is, the president has a big bully pulpit … maybe people will think there’s some non-public evidence” that the drug works because Trump has chosen to use it, del Rio said. “It creates this conspiracy theory that something works and they’re not telling me about it yet.”
The veterans study that Trump slammed was an analysis by researchers at several universities of hydroxychloroquine with or without azithromycin in COVID-19 patients at veterans hospitals across the nation. It found no benefit and more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care alone. The work was posted on an online site for researchers and has not been reviewed by other scientists. Grants from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia paid for the work.