U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters Monday that he is taking an anti-malaria drug to ward off COVID-19.
“I’ve taken it for a week-and-a-half now and I’m still here,” Trump said during a meeting in the White House State Dining Room. “What do you have to lose?”
The president explained that he is combining a hydroxychloroquine pill daily with zinc and regularly tests negative for COVID-19.
The drug significantly increases the risk of death for certain patients and has not yet been found effective in treating coronavirus patients in any sizable scientific study, including clinical trials.
The Food and Drug Administration last month issued a warning that hydroxychloroquine should only be dispensed in hospitals because it could cause heart rhythm problems.
There is also no evidence that taking the drug can prevent people from being infected by the novel coronavirus.
“I’m not going to get hurt by it,” Trump asserted. "It’s been around for 40 years — for malaria, for lupus, for other things. I take it. Frontline workers take it. A lot of doctors take it.”
The president said he had asked the White House physician to prescribe the drug for him.
“I’ve been taking it for the last week and a half. A pill every day,” Trump told surprised reporters who had gathered for the president’s roundtable event with restaurant operators. Trump said he has experienced “zero symptoms” from taking the medication, known for its anti-parasitic and immunosuppressive properties.
In a subsequent statement, Dr. Sean Conley, the physician to the president, said that after numerous discussions with Trump about the “evidence for and against hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit for treatment outweighed the relative risks.”
Nothing in the memo sent from Conley to White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany mentions a prescription written for the drug or what dosage the president might be taking.
On the Fox News Channel, a friendly cable television outlet for the president, news presenter and business journalist Neil Cavuto was taken aback and immediately issued an on-air warning.
"If you are in a risky population here, and you are taking this as a preventative treatment to ward off the virus … it will kill you,” Cavuto said, citing a medical study. “I cannot stress enough. This will kill you."
Other Fox News personalities have promoted the drug.
Sean Hannity has featured claims from a New York physician, Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, who has claimed to have successfully cured patients of COVID-19 with a combination of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and zinc.
On CNN, the cable network’s medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, said the president “shouldn’t be taking it,” noting there is no evidence hydroxychloroquine can treat or prevent the coronavirus while there are clear concerns about side effects it can cause.
Trump, since March 19, has frequently touted the drug as a treatment for COVID-19, stating that if it proves not to be effective, “it's not going to kill anybody."
Later that month, a couple in the U.S. state of Arizona ingested the similarly sounding chloroquine phosphate, a medication for fish, believing it would protect them from the coronavirus. The husband died. The wife told NBC News she had watched televised briefings during which Trump had spoken of the potential benefits of chloroquine.
“I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, 'Hey, isn't that the stuff they're talking about on TV?’” she said.
Poison control centers, around the same time, reported receiving an increased number of calls relating to substances containing chloroquine.
Also Monday, Trump criticized the ousted head of a federal agency who had pushed back on approval for hydroxychloroquine.
The focus on the unproven drug "was distracting to dozens of government scientists" trying to advance vaccines and other experimental therapeutics, Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) told a congressional panel last Thursday.
Bright has filed a whistleblower complaint in connection with his removal from running BARDA.
Trump told reporters Monday that the only negative things he had heard about the drug were from “people that aren't big Trump fans.”
Research is continuing to see if the drug the president says he is now taking can be beneficial for treating the coronavirus.
The National Institutes of Health has launched a study testing hydroxychloroquine versus a placebo drug in 500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Last week, NIH announced another study to see if hydroxychloroquine plus the antibiotic azithromycin can prevent hospitalization or death in people with mild to moderate illness.
The coronavirus has infected more than 1.5 million people in the United States and is attributed as the cause of death of 90,000 in the country.