WASHINGTON – 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.
“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.”
Chloroquine and a similar drug, hydroxychloroquine, showed encouraging signs in small, early tests against the coronavirus. Those preliminary studies sparked intense interest after Trump tweeted in March that hydroxychloroquine plus an antibiotic could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine” and should “be put in use immediately.”
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.”
Addressing concerns that Trump's example could lead people to misuse the drug, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “tens of millions of people around the world have used this drug for other purposes,” including malaria prophylaxis. She emphasized, “You have to have a prescription. That's the way it must be done.”
The drug is also prescribed for some lupus and arthritis patients.
Trump said his doctor did not recommend hydroxychloroquine to him but that he requested it from the White House physician. That physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said in a statement that, after “numerous discussions” with Trump, “we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.”
Calls to centers involving hydroxychloroquine increased last month to 96, compared with 49 in April 2019, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers provided to the AP. It was the second month of elevated reports involving the drug, following 79 calls in March. The problems reported included abnormal heart rhythms, seizures, nausea and vomiting.
Trump dismissed reports of side effects, claiming, “What has been determined is it doesn't harm you. Very powerful drug, I guess, but it doesn't harm you.”
Trump also lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a “sick woman” who has “a lot of mental problems” after she questioned Trump's use of the drug because he is 73 and falsely labeled him “morbidly obese.” Her comments were followed by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who told MSNBC that Trump's move was “reckless, reckless, reckless.”
Trump's presumptive Democratic opponent in the 2020 election, Joe Biden, chastised the president for being irresponsible in taking hydroxychloroquine.
“What is he doing? What in God's name is he doing?” Biden said during a Yahoo News town hall Tuesday night. “The words of the president matter.”
Pro-Trump doctors sought for message
Republican political operatives are recruiting “pro-Trump” doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks proposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
The plan was discussed in a May 11 conference call with a senior staffer for the Trump reelection campaign organized by CNP Action, an affiliate of the GOP-aligned Council for National Policy. A leaked recording of the hourlong call was provided to The Associated Press by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group.
Answers sought on inspector removal
Congressional Democrats are protesting President Donald Trump's decision to remove the Transportation Department's acting inspector general, the latest in a string of actions by Trump to fire or replace government watchdogs.
The Democratic chairs of three House panels Tuesday demanded that Mitch Behm be reinstated immediately as acting inspector general. The lawmakers also demanded that the Trump administration turn over information about current investigations that might have played a role in Behm's removal, including a review of whether Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has given preferential treatment to Kentucky. Her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and a top Trump ally, is seeking reelection this year.