Hydroxychloroquine, We Hardly Knew Ye

A pharmacy tech holds a pill of Hydroxychloroquine at Rock Canyon Pharmacy in Provo, Utah, on May 20, 2020. - US President Donald Trump announced May 18 he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for almost two weeks as a... A pharmacy tech holds a pill of Hydroxychloroquine at Rock Canyon Pharmacy in Provo, Utah, on May 20, 2020. - US President Donald Trump announced May 18 he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for almost two weeks as a preventative measure against COVID-19. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP) (Photo by GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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June 15, 2020 4:58 p.m.

The hopeful days of hydroxychloroquine as a potentially game-changing coronavirus treatment appear to be over.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration withdrew an emergency authorization that had allowed the government to funnel the drug to coronavirus patients across the country, despite little evidence showing that it worked against COVID-19.

It is “no longer reasonable to believe” that hydroxychloroquine pills may be effective in treating the virus, nor that the known and potential benefits of using the drug outweigh the risks, the FDA’s chief scientist said.

And so ended months of happy talk about a decades-old anti-malarial.

The hydroxychloroquine hype, in its early days, had some legitimacy. Small trials and studies showed promise, though hardly the kind of evidence to support widespread use. But with just a few words in mid-March, Trump got millions of Americans to pin their hopes on the drug as a COVID-19 cure-all.

It “would be a game changer” if it did happen to work, Trump said at a press conference.

“I feel good about it,” he added. “That’s all it is, just a feeling. I’m a smart guy.”

The country followed his lead: Within days of Trump’s pronouncement, the FDA had issued an emergency authorization for federal supplies of the pill to be used as a COVID-19 treatment. Pharmacists and drug makers reported alarming spikes in demand for the pills. And existing patients who for years had used hydroxychloroquine to treat conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis saw their supplies of the medicine get swept up in the stampede.

All Aboard The Hydroxy Train

As pharmaceutical interventions go, hydroxychloroquine was among the most politicized in recent history. The viral conspiracy theory video “Plandemic” featured the pill prominently. And conservative writers slammed reporters who raised questions about the drug as “terrible Americans.”

In late March, the boy-pundit and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk falsely said that hydroxychloroquine had been proven “100% effective” at treating COVID-19.

Democrats, he said, are “okay with people dying if it means opposing Trump. SICK!”

Within 11 minutes, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani had quoted Kirk in a post of his own. (Both posts were removed for having “violated the Twitter Rules.”)

A few days later, the newly minted Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) tweeted that hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin “have shown anecdotal evidence that they, if used early enough, have success in combatting [sic] the scourge of COVID-19.”

And at a mid-May protest against COVID-19 public health orders, when a crowd of Trump supporters harassed a local news reporter, one man in a Trump t-shirt cited the drug when the reporter asked him to keep his distance.

“No, I got hydroxychloroquine, I’m fine,” the man said, as he invaded the reporter’s personal space.

Perhaps the man was a Fox News viewer: For weeks, the network’s opinion hosts had trumpeted the pills. Most notable was Laura Ingraham, who interviewed COVID-19 survivors who’d taken the drug.

“Every patient that I’ve treated — serious, moderate — has had resolution of symptoms within 24 hours,” one doctor told Ingraham.

Another patient was “like Lazarus, up from the grave,” Ingraham said.

Over two weeks in late March and early April, the network’s personalities and guests promoted the drug nearly 300 times, according to a Media Matters count.

Ingraham was still going with lengthy monologues about the drug weeks later:

Presidential Prophylactic

Trump’s hype campaign had its detractors: The government whistleblower Rick Bright, for example, was stripped of his position as a key research director and demoted after warning against hydroxychloroquine’s widespread use.

But Trump kept up the sell: Bright was just a “disgruntled employee,” he said, before changing the narrative and announcing that he was taking the drug himself as a prophylactic.

“I’m taking the two, the zinc and the hydroxy,” Trump told a clutch of astonished reporters. “And all I can tell you is, so far I seem to be okay.”

And, wouldn’t you know it, others in the right-wing conservative griftosphere had been taking the drug as well. They’d just neglected to say so until after after Trump’s announcement.

“I’ve been taking it for more than a month,” the radio host and former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said following Trump’s announcement. “Will it kill you? Will it save you from the Chinese Virus? Tune in today to America First on the Salem Radio Network.”

The Fox News medical contributor Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, who’s also the medical director of the CityMD chain of urgent care clinics, said she welcomed Trump’s news: “It’s not going to be good for everyone, but it may be beneficial and potentially lifesaving for others,” she said.

“The Five” co-host Greg Guttfield, on his own show, sounded a similar note: “If it’s available to you, and you can take it, you do it.”


Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) jumped on the bandwagon, praising Trump and saying the whole Marshall family was also taking the drug to ward off coronavirus.

“I would encourage any person over the age of 65 or with an underlying medical condition to talk to their own physician about taking hydroxychloroquine and I’m relieved President Trump is taking it,” the congressman said.

‘A Lot Of Positive Calls’

No matter that the facts weren’t on the drug’s side: Study after study after study after study found no benefit in using hydroxychloroquine. And within a month of its own emergency authorization, the FDA issued a warning against the widespread use of the drug, citing a pattern of observed heart irregularities in patients.

But Trump hasn’t troubled himself with those scientific details.

A troubling study of VA patients, he said, was “false” and only tallied “people that were ready to die.” And the doctors involved were “obviously not friends of the administration.”

After Trump announced that he was taking hydroxychloroquine himself as a prophylactic, reporters asked what evidence he’d seen to convince him of its efficacy. The President said he’d heard from a New York doctor who’d treated “hundreds” of patients with the drug “and he hasn’t lost one.”

“Here’s my evidence,” Trump added. “I get a lot of positive calls about it.”

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