'We need answers': VA has given hydroxychloroquine to 1,300 vets with COVID-19 amid troubling studies

WASHINGTON – Democrats are raising concerns over the Department of Veterans Affairs using hydroxychloroquine to treat veterans diagnosed with COVID-19, a path of treatment that has been shown to increase mortality in some patients.

The VA, in response to questions from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it had used the drug on about 1,300 of the 10,000 veterans who they are treating for the coronavirus and said the administration "will continue to do so."

"We need to know what the basis was for using this drug against the consensus of science, which called into question its effectiveness in treating COVID-19," Schumer said in a statement Friday. "We also need to know who is authorizing these new trials, what facilities are participating and what families are being told."

The VA purchased a bulk order of hydroxychloroquine over the last few months totaling more than 6.3 million tablets of the drug. Schumer wrote earlier this month to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, questioning to the bulk order, the department's use of the drug and its impacts on veterans.

Wilkie responded by defending the department's use of the drug to treat patients infected with coronavirus, despite a number of studies and the Food and Drug Administration's warning that the drug hasn't been proven to work and has potentially deadly side effects.

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Wilkie, in a letter to Schumer, noted that the FDA authorized physicians to use the drug for patients and the VA is following the guidance from the FDA and is aware of the potential side effects, especially for those with preexisting conditions or who take the drug in combination with others.

"There is much misinformation in the national media about VA's use of this pharmaceutical," Wilkie said in his letter. "The immediate concern is that veterans are being discouraged from seeking life-saving treatment at the VA as the result of false implications that VA is recklessly experimenting on veterans with this drug."

He said the drug was being prescribed in "certain circumstances" and is largely being used "at the final stages of a veteran's life in the hope that it has some positive effect." Wilkie added that the department's primary use of the drug, which is used to treat or prevent malaria as well as autoimmune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, has not been to treat COVID-19 patients.

The VA also told the New York Democrat that the department is planning several studies to examine the effectiveness of the drug, including one scheduled for review this month.

"This drug may be useless or even harmful for COVID-19 patients, but the VA continues to administer it to hundreds of vets," Schumer said on Twitter. "Why are we just learning this? We need answers NOW!"

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President Donald Trump said earlier this week that he was taking hydroxychloroquine daily for about a week and a half as an added measure to avoid getting the coronavirus, a revelation that stunned health experts.

The president had touted the drug for weeks, frequently discussing anecdotal evidence of its impact from the podium during daily White House briefings. His administration stockpiled 29 million doses of the drug earlier in the pandemic.

Two recent observational studies of coronavirus patients suggested the drug has little impact in treating the disease. The studies, while not the same as a clinical trial, suggested that the drug did not significantly reduce complications from the virus or death.

Contributing: Courtney Subramanian and John Fritze

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Government gave hydroxychloroquine to 1,300 veterans