Evidence mounts against drug touted aggressively by Trump

Trump probably should've shown more restraint before fixating on hydroxychloroquine as a silver bullet.
Image: Researchers set up new labs to help fight coronavirus at the University of Minnesota
Researchers at the Microbiology Research Facility work with coronavirus samples as a trial begins to see whether malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine can prevent or reduce the severity of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on March 19, 2020.Craig Lassig / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump probably should've shown more restraint before fixating on hydroxychloroquine as a silver bullet in the fight against the coronavirus. Because with each passing week, the evidence appears to point in the opposite direction.

Politico had a report this week on the latest research.

A decades-old malaria medicine touted by the president as a coronavirus treatment showed no benefit for patients hospitalized in New York. There was also no noticeable advantage for patients that took the drug paired with the antibiotic azithromycin, according to hotly anticipated research published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This reporting comes on the heels of a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that found no evidence of hydroxychloroquine working as an effective treatment for coronavirus infection.

In recent weeks, we've seen similar assessments from the NIH and the FDA, the latter of which pointed to risks of serious side effects, "including heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage."

Circling back to our earlier coverage, the president didn't just express tacit support for hydroxychloroquine; he effectively became an infomercial pitch-man in support of an unproven medicinal treatment. Based on "a feeling" he said he had, Trump publicly encouraged Americans to start taking the medication -- "Take it," he said, adding, "I really think they should take it" -- adding that he personally was prepared to start himself on the drug.

What's more, Trump suggested it was harmless. "The nice part is, we know that if things don't go as planned, it's not going to kill anybody," the president told the public a month ago. He added in early April, "It may work, and it may not work. But if it doesn't work, it's nothing lost by doing it. Nothing." That appears to have been wrong, too.

What's more, Team Trump didn't just cross their fingers and hope for the best. The president urged Americans to start taking the medication, creating a run on pills that some people actually needed. What's more, Politico reported that some health officials were "pulled away from other potential projects to address the president's hunch." The article quoted an HHS official who lamented the "time and energy being soaked up by a potential wild-goose chase."

Soon after, Politico published a related report, noting that career health officials had raised behind-the-scenes warnings about hydroxychloroquine, but they'd been "warned not to publicly speak out and potentially contradict Trump."

There were also literal investments, as the administration put millions of doses of the drug into an emergency stockpile.

We've also heard from Dr. Rick Bright, who worked as a top vaccine researcher at the Department of Health and Human Services, who has said he was removed from his job for resisting the president's preferred course.

And yet, there was Donald Trump at the Lincoln Memorial last week, telling Fox News there was only "one study" that proved to be discouraging. The president added, "I'll tell you what: I've had three calls in the last three days, four days, of people that took it, and they're giving it credit for saving their lives. You know, other countries are using it, and they're bragging about it. You look at their numbers."

Trump went on to say that "the Democrats" and the "radical left" would "rather see people not get well because they think I'm going to get credit if, you know, hydroxychloroquine works."

The president, in other words, has learned very little about the importance of restraint in touting dubious medical treatments.