Ignoring medical experts and scientists, Trump has aggressively promoted hydroxychloroquine, while acknowledging that he isn’t a doctor and instead relies on “common sense.”
Relying only on anecdotal evidence and his own opinion, President Donald Trump has spent weeks touting an unproven drug treatment as a “game changer” in the fight to contain the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 11,000 Americans. On Monday—a day after the president endorsed the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine yet again—the public learned that Trump has a “small financial interest” in one of its makers, according to reporting from the New York Times.
In championing the drug as a treatment for COVID-19, the president has repeatedly gone against the advice of medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Fauci has warned that there is no conclusive evidence that hydroxychloroquine is safe and effective in treating the novel coronavirus. According to the Times, other experts on the government’s coronavirus task force also warned that the drug could be dangerous for patients with heart issues.
That, however, hasn’t stopped Trump. The president has ignored the scientists and aggressively promoted the drug, all the while acknowledging that he wasn’t a doctor and was instead relying on “common sense.”
“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked five times on Sunday during his daily press briefing.
For some observers, that has raised a bigger question about Trump’s motivations regarding the success of hydroxychloroquine. On Monday, the Times reported that Trump’s family trusts all have investments in a mutual fund whose largest holding is Sanofi, the maker of Plaquenil, which is the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.
Ashleigh Koss, a Sanofi spokeswoman, told the Times that the company no longer sells or distributes Plaquenil in the United States, but it does sell the drug internationally, meaning if Plaquenil takes off outside the United States, Trump and his family could stand to see financial gains. Trump associates, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, have also managed funds that hold investments in the pharmaceutical firm.
Other Trump allies, including former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and trade advisor Peter Navarro, have lobbied Trump to embrace the drug. The president has also reportedly discussed the drug with an array of personalities, ranging from Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of “The Doctor Oz Show” to Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle, to Fox News Host Laura Ingraham.
While Trump’s financial ties could certainly be a factor, his interest in seeing the drug succeed could also be something of a political calculus: If he peddles a drug and it winds up being effective in treating COVID-19, it could help obscure his administration’s well-publicized failures in preparing for and responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
And there is, of course, the possibility that the drug might actually work. Doctors have reported anecdotal evidence about its effectiveness in treating some cases of COVID-19. But there is still no concrete scientific proof to back up Trump’s claims of the drug as a “game changer.”
In an interview with Fox News’ “The Daily Briefing,” Dr. William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor and founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments, said he found it “sad” that people were touting hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19.
“We know already from studies, at best it will have a very mild effect, at very best,” he explained. “There are studies that conflict a little bit, one from the other. One concludes it has no effect, the other concludes that it has a mild effect. The net result is, whatever effect it has, it will be very mild. That drug has been used for years against many other viruses to no effect.”
Haseltine also pointed out that “some people may take it who are on other medications, who have other underlying conditions, and they have very serious, even life-threatening consequences. It is not something to take unless a doctor prescribes it.”
The professional organization behind a French study cited by Trump’s allies has also backtracked in recent days. “The article does not meet the society’s expected standard,” The International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy said. The Times also cited Swedish media reports noting that hospitals in Sweden have stopped providing the drug to coronavirus patients after reports of severe side effects.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency order in late March allowing doctors to provide hydroxychloroquine to coronavirus patients if they saw fit. Dr. Daniel H. Sterman, the critical care director at NYU Langone Health, told the Times that doctors at his hospital are using hydroxychloroquine, but the data about its effectiveness was “weak and unsubstantiated.”
“We do not know whether our patients are benefiting from hydroxychloroquine treatment at the present time,” he said.
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It remains to be seen whether hydroxychloroquine is truly effective, but one consequence of Trump’s aggressive promotion of the drug is already playing out. There’s been a surge in demand for hydroxychloroquine in recent weeks, which has created a massive shortage and made it extremely difficult for lupus patients, many of whom rely on the drug to treat “unbearable” pain, to obtain the doses they need.
More than 1.5 million Americans suffer from lupus, according to The Lupus Foundation of America. Another 1.3 million Americans live with rheumatoid arthritis, some of whom also rely on hydroxychloroquine to mitigate their pain.
Margie Araujo, a 34-year-old San Diego-area woman who lives with lupus, expressed the fear and frustration that she and so many other lupus patients are experiencing right now.
“It’s not even proven to work yet on coronavirus patients,” Araujo told NBC San Diego. “But for thousands of patients like me, lupus patients and rheumatoid arthritis patients, where it is working and they’re in remission, you’re taking it away from them. And that’s frustrating.”
Trump, for his part, has incorrectly stated that lupus patients seem less likely to contract COVID19.
“There’s a rumor out there,” Trump said. “”Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not.”
In characteristic fashion, he did not cite any evidence.
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