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Trump's rhetoric on untested medication takes a dangerous turn

Trump's rhetoric on hydroxychloroquine may very well represent a public-health hazard.
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

After Donald Trump claimed that he'd begun taking hydroxychloroquine, despite the health risks, some made the case that the president's risk is his own business. He may be putting himself in jeopardy for no reason, the argument goes, but that's between Trump, his doctor, and his family.

Putting aside the political science -- as the chief executive of a global superpower, the American president has unique responsibilities that may extend beyond his person -- the pitch may appear to have some surface-level appeal. Trump's medicinal choices are his own.

The larger problem, however, is that the president has many followers who look to him for leadership -- and Trump's leadership on hydroxychloroquine may very well represent a public-health hazard.

Here, for example, is a message about the drug the president shared with the public yesterday at a White House event:

"A lot of doctors think it's great.... And what has been determined is it doesn't harm you. It's a very powerful drug, I guess, but it doesn't harm you."

That isn't even close to being true. Independent research has pointed to the possibility of very serious adverse side effects, including heart problems, for those who take the medication without need. A Washington Post report added last week, "Clinical trials, academic research and scientific analysis indicate that the danger of the Trump-backed drug is a significantly increased risk of death for certain patients."

Either the president is unclear about the meaning of "harm," or his declarations yesterday about the medication's safety were the opposite of reality.

Also yesterday, Trump spoke briefly with reporters while on Capitol Hill and suggested that scientific research rejecting hydroxychloroquine as an effective COVID-19 treatment is not to be believed. He specifically took aim at research from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, calling its study a "Trump enemy statement."

The president went on to suggest that V.A. scientists had conspired against him. "That study was a phony study put out by the V.A.," the Republican claimed at a cabinet meeting, adding, "That was a phony study, and it's very dangerous to do it. The fact is, people should want to help people, not to make political points."

In Trump's mind, the "very dangerous" part of this equation is scientific research from his own Department of Veterans Affairs.

In reality, the V.A. study was one of several recent reports questioning the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, and there's literally no evidence of V.A. researchers engaging in some kind of political conspiracy against the president.

But again, Trump's most loyal followers won't know any of this. All they'll hear is their president encouraging Americans to take a dangerous medication, arguing that it's harmless, and questioning the value of legitimate research.

The risk to the public seems quite real.