August 4, 2020

Why Does the President Keep Pushing a Malaria Drug?

Two weeks ago, French doctors published a provocative observation in a microbiology journal. In the absence of a known treatment for COVID-19, the doctors had taken to experimentation with a potent drug known as hydroxychloroquine. For decades, the drug has been used to treat malaria—which is caused by a parasite, not a virus. In six patients with COVID-19, the doctors combined hydroxychloroquine with azithromycin (known to many as “Z-Pak,” an antibiotic that kills bacteria, not viruses) and reported that after six days of this regimen, all six people tested negative for the virus.

The report caught the eye of the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who has since appeared on Fox News to talk about hydroxychloroquine 21 times. As Oz put it to Sean Hannity, “This French doctor, [Didier] Raoult, a very famous infectious-disease specialist, had done some interesting work at a pilot study showing that he could get rid of the virus in six days in 100 percent of the patients he treated.” Raoult has made news in recent years as a pan-disciplinary provocateur; he has questioned climate change and Darwinian evolution. On January 21, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, Raoult said in a YouTube video, “The fact that people have died of coronavirus in China, you know, I don’t feel very concerned.” Last week, Oz, who has been advising the president on the coronavirus, described Raoult to Hannity as “very impressive.” Oz told Hannity that he had informed the White House as much.

Anthony Fauci is not among the impressed. The day the study came out, Fauci, the leading infectious-disease expert advising the White House’s coronavirus task force, downplayed the findings as “anecdotal.” The report was not a randomized clinical trial—one in which many people are followed to see how their health fares, not simply whether a virus is detectable. And Oz’s “100 percent” interpretation involves conspicuous omissions. According to the study itself, three other patients who received hydroxychloroquine were too sick to be tested for the virus by day six (they were intubated in the ICU). Another had a bad reaction to the drug and stopped taking it. Another was not tested because, by day six, he had died.

Nonetheless, the day after Raoult’s study was published, Donald Trump tweeted about it: “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” In the days since, Trump has repeatedly returned to this claim. On Saturday, he said that the term game changer wouldn’t even adequately describe the drug: “It will be wonderful. It will be so beautiful. It will be a gift from heaven, if it works.” After downplaying the value of ventilators and social distancing, measures that experts overwhelmingly agree are needed to overcome the virus, Trump said the country would procure 29 million doses of hydroxychloroquine for a national stockpile. He said he may start taking the drug himself.

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