From the moment he pivoted from “soon down to zero” to claiming that killing a quarter of a million Americans would show that he has done “a very good job,” Donald Trump has been pushing America to swallow a megaton of chloroquine. The drug is potent against malaria, and a regular treatment against inflammatory diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Trump has pushed the drug in the face of almost no evidence that it has any positive effect helping against coronavirus. He has pushed it even though chloroquine is a serious drug with serious side effects including heart attacks. He has pushed it even though people have already died from following his suggestion to gobble down the pills. He has pushed it even to people who are not infected with COVID-19 on the pretense that it will help prevent them from becoming infected. And he’s pushed it without revealing that he has a personal stake in the company that manufactures the drug.
On Monday evening, The New York Times ran an article headlined “Trump’s Aggressive Advocacy of Malaria Drug for Treating Coronavirus Divides Medical Community” which is an absolutely miserable and incorrect headline. The medical community is not “divided” over Trump’s daily use of the national airwaves to push an untested remedy for a deadly disease. Everyone agrees that Trump’s actions are foolish, dangerous, and completely unethical. Though, to give the Times credit, even with the supply of rural dinners closed, they did manage to find one person who said he understands that Trump is trying to “project hope.”
Very early on, doctors desperate to find anything that might help in an ICU filled with COVID-19 patients gave a very small number of them chloroquine. Some of those patients got better. But this was not a random trial or double-blind study. Attempts to replicate this benefit in more scientific tests are ongoing, but so far there is scant evidence that attempting to fight a virus with a drug typically used against a single-celled plasmodium has any positive effect. An early study has been rejected from publication after reviewers found several problems. And that first published paper had issues including the possibility that some of those who “left the study” before its conclusion may have done so by dying.
Chloroquine may prove to have some benefit. But pressing people to use it—especially telling people to take it even if they don’t have COVID-19—has definite, clear, and bleak consequences. Not only is this a powerful drug that is not indicated for people with known heart issues, it can generate new heart arrhythmia, and even heart attacks, in those without known issues.
Even more importantly, Trump’s daily advocacy of the drug is driving up a gray-market demand that is making it harder and harder for those who really do need the drug for malaria, or for its anti-inflammatory effects against lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, are finding it nearly impossible to get their prescriptions refilled. In drug store after drug store, people genuinely ill with a condition that can genuinely be addressed by this drug are finding their prescriptions delayed, sometimes indefinitely.
Why is Trump causing genuine harm to push a drug that may or may not have any benefit? Hidden several paragraphs down in the Times story about the supposedly “divided” medical community comes this information: “Mr. Trump himself has a small personal financial interest in Sanofi, the French drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.”
A small interest in a drugmaker may not seem like the kind of thing that would put Trump in front of a camera every day, encouraging Americans to treat a dangerous drug like Tic Tacs and tossing on his trademark “What have you got to lose?” But this is Trump. This is the guy who tried to stiff every small contractor, on ever trivial task, in the middle of billion-dollar construction projects. Whether it was curtains, pipes, or cabinets, Trump was more than willing to shaft companies to weasel out of bills.
Of course Trump is willing to push a possible worse-than-worthless drug on America for a small gain—and that’s assuming the known stock ownership is the limit of how Trump is benefiting from this deal. Trump isn’t alone in this, his whole criminal gang, including well-known medical expert Rudy Giuliani, are out there both touting this drug and using it as a means of lining their own pockets.
Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine offer an attractive proposition. They’re already being manufactured. They’ve been in widespread use for a long time. The side effects and risks are real, but understood. When compared to any new antiviral or similar treatment that may have barely entered human trials, these drugs are exactly the kind of thing that might be useful as a therapeutic treatment. Emphasis on might.
But Trump’s actions are completely unethical and definitely harmful. Anyone on the other side of that divide is someone looking to make a profit from misery and fear.