President Donald Trump announced on Monday that he’d been taking hydroxychloroquine, the latest twist in a weekslong effort by the president to signal there is an effective treatment in the battle against the coronavirus.
The only problem: Most scientists disagree.
“A couple of weeks ago, I started taking it,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday, adding that he’d consulted with his presidential physician about the drug.
Initial data from observational studies have shown the drug has limited or no proven benefits for coronavirus patients, and may even be harmful when used in certain combinations.
The president made the stunning announcement during a roundtable with restaurant executives, dismissing those studies and instead invoking anecdotal evidence that he claimed to have heard from doctors and other front-line medical workers.
Trump — who has tested negative for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — told reporters that he’d been taking hydroxychloroquine daily for the past week and a half, along with a daily dose of zinc and an initial dose of the antibiotic azithromycin, a combination that has been linked to increased incidences of cardiac arrest.
The revelation came after weeks of the administration — and conservative media — toning down statements about the promise of the drug, following questions about its safety and efficacy. The White House has sought to play up different treatments, including Remdesivir, which has shown promising results.
The timing also coincides with the first pair of coronavirus cases in the West Wing — on May 7, the president’s personal valet tested positive for coronavirus, and just days later Vice President Mike Pence’s top spokesperson tested positive, as well.
Trump emerged as a champion of hydroxychloroquine early on in the pandemic, boosted by his allies in conservative media, and he cited from the White House briefing room podium anecdotal evidence of the drug’s helping coronavirus patients, only to be cautioned by health officials moments later that the drug’s potential benefits remained unproven.
Trump’s push for the drug is central to a whistleblower report from a former top vaccine official in the administration who says he was ousted after refusing to back the administration’s push for hydroxychloroquine.
The FDA authorized emergency use of the drug against the coronavirus in March, despite sparse evidence that it could work. But it later warned against using the therapy outside of clinical trials, citing potential “life threatening” heart problems.
Around the same time, Trump suddenly began to lay off his promotion of the drug, and mentioned it rarely if at all in the weeks before Monday’s revelation.
“I take it. I hope to not be able to take it soon because, you know, I hope they come up with some answer,” he told reporters about the drug. He then appeared to rebut his FDA: “But I think people should be allowed to.”
While the president denied that his physician at the White House had recommended he take hydroxychloroquine, he indicated that his doctor didn’t object to his request for the drug.
“The White House doctor, he didn’t recommend — no, I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Well if you’d like it.’ I said, ‘Yeah I’d like it. I’d like to take it,’” Trump explained, claiming that “a lot of people are taking — a lot of front-line workers are taking hydroxychloroquine.”
On Monday evening, the White House released a memo from the presidential physician, Dr. Sean Conley, saying that Trump “is in very good health and has remained symptom-free,” and that the president receives “regular COVID-19 testing, all negative to date.” Conley did not, however, say whether he’d prescribed the drug to Trump or recommended a dosage.
“After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine,” Conley wrote, “we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.” He added that “I continue to monitor the myriad studies investigating potential COVID-19 therapies.”
Trump on Monday also denied that he was experiencing any adverse effects from taking the drug. “All I can tell you is, so far I seem to be OK,” he said, later adding that after a week and a half of taking it, “I'm still here.”
But the president’s disclosure on Monday is sure to revive fears of shortages of the drug, which is already commercially available and most commonly used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Back in the spring when Trump first began to promote hydroxychloroquine, FDA officials allowed the drug to be added to the Strategic National Stockpile “to be distributed and prescribed by doctors to hospitalized teen and adult patients with Covid-19, as appropriate, when a clinical trial is not available or feasible.”
A growing number of lupus and arthritis patients had already complained that they‘d been unable to fill their prescriptions amid ongoing shortages, and reports emerged that some physicians began hoarding the drug for themselves.
It could also prompt others to begin taking the combination as a preventive measure as well, perhaps exposing them to the same harmful side effects observed in some studies.
It wouldn’t be the first time that people desperately hoping to avoid contracting Covid-19 followed the president’s ill-informed medical advice. Last month, Trump was slammed after he offhandedly suggested during a televised news briefing that ingesting disinfectants could treat the virus. Officials in some states reported a spike in calls to their poison control centers and health departments asking about Trump‘s comments.
Still, at the White House on Monday, the president told reporters he’d received “many” letters like the one he got last week from a doctor in the New York suburbs who claimed he’d given hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and zinc to “over 300 patients” and hadn’t lost a single one.
The doctor “just wanted me to know the results of what he's doing as a doctor. He was so happy with the fact that I fight for this stuff. And then we have this crazy whistleblower, this fake whistleblower get out and try to knock it,” he said, referring to Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
The president on Monday repeatedly asserted that “many, many” front-line workers and doctors were taking hydroxychloroquine, a claim that appears to misrepresent ongoing studies among health care workers with no definitive results yet.
Trump also fell back on a past defense for touting the drug, that he was willing to take risks to combat the virus that has infected more than 1.5 million Americans and killed more than 90,000.
“I get a lot of tremendously positive news on the hydroxy. And I say, hey, do you know the expression I've used, John? What do you have to lose? OK, What do you have to lose?” he professed to reporters.
“I want the people of this nation to feel good. I don't want them being sick, And there is a very good chance that this has an impact, especially early on,” he asserted, offering no evidence to back up that claim. “But you look at front-line workers. You look at doctors and nurses. A lot of them are taking it. As a preventative.”
Challenged by reporters to divulge his evidence that the drugs can work as a preventative measure — Trump said he continued to test negative in near daily coronavirus tests and has been showing “zero" symptoms” — the president had none.
“Here we go. Are you ready? Here’s my evidence. I get a lot of positive calls about it,” he responded, saying the only negatives he’d heard about the drug were the results of a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the results of which he appeared to suggest had been politically tainted.
While there are studies underway on hydroxychloroquine’s use as a preventative, no results of those studies have been released yet. Of some of the other initial data showing little to no benefits of hydroxychloroquine or even that taking it in certain combinations was harmful, Trump pointed to the fact that many of them were conducted with moderately to severely ill patients — though there’s no evidence hydroxychloroquine is more effective when given to patients who are less ill.
The theory with zinc is that it has antiviral properties and that certain medicines — like hydroxychloroquine — could boost its ability to get into cells, said Joseph Rahimian, an infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health and lead researcher on a study analyzing patients who received zinc along with their hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin regimen.
Rahimian said that patients who used zinc along with the other medicines saw improvements in survival from Covid-19, but that in his opinion this was driven by the additive and not hydroxychloroquine.
“My clinical experience on the floors was that it did nothing,” he said about the anti-malaria drug. While there are safety concerns around the hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin combination, “zinc is a relatively well-tolerated medicine,” he added.
On Monday, the president declined to say whether any other administration officials were taking hydroxychloroquine, calling such a disclosure a “personal decision” but saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t alone.
“I just want to be open with the American public,” Trump added.
Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.