FDA spurns coronavirus treatment touted aggressively by Trump

For Donald Trump, who'd spent weeks celebrating hydroxychloroquine as a silver bullet in the fight against the coronavirus, this was not a great week.
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 made little effort to hide his fixation on hydroxychloroquine as a silver bullet in the fight against the coronavirus. This week, the evidence started to betray him.

It started with a large analysis of its use in veterans hospitals, which offered discouraging results. Soon after, we learned that that the NIH recommended against a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a treatment for COVID-19 patients -- exactly one month after the president hailed the drug combination as possibly "one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine."

Today, it was the FDA's turn.

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday cautioned against prescribing hydroxychloroquine to COVID-19 patients outside of hospital settings or clinical trials. The drug, an antimalarial, was repeatedly touted by President Donald Trump as a possible treatment for the coronavirus.

While the FDA noted that research will continue, the agency pointed to reports of serious side effects, "including heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage."

As we've discussed, 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."

The FDA, however, made the opposite conclusion.

Following up on earlier coverage, I imagine some on the right will downplay the importance of this, suggesting that there's no real cost to a president and his team investing hope in a possible treatment, even if it was premature, and even if the preliminary research suggests the treatment may be ineffective.

But 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.

This week, a top vaccine researcher at the Department of Health and Human Services said he was removed from his job for resisting the president's preferred course.

It would appear some folks have some explaining to do.

Postscript: NBC News reported yesterday that Trump's medicinal campaign came in the wake of a conversation with Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison, one of the president's billionaire political allies.