Donald Trump has said he is taking a malaria drug to protect against coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for Covid-19 in a hospital or research setting due to potentially fatal side effects.
The president told reporters he has been taking hydroxychloroquine and a zinc supplement daily “for about a week and a half now”.
He spent weeks pushing the drug as a potential cure for Covid-19 – against the advice of many of his administration’s top medical professionals.
The drug has the potential to cause significant side effects in some patients and has not been shown to combat coronavirus.
Mr Trump said his doctor did not recommend the drug to him but he requested it from the White House physician.
“I started taking it, because I think it’s good,” Mr Trump said. “I’ve heard a lot of good stories.”
Sometimes fatal side effects
The White House physician Sean Conley said in a statement released through the White House press office that after “numerous discussions” with Mr Trump about the evidence for and against using hydroxychloroquine “we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks”.
The Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat Covid-19 outside hospital or research settings, due to sometimes fatal side effects.
Regulators issued the alert for the drug, which can also be used to treat lupus and arthritis, after receiving reports of heart rhythm problems, including deaths, from poison control centres and other health providers.
Mr Trump dismissed reports of side effects, saying: “All I can tell you is, so far I seem to be OK.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called Mr Trump’s remarks “dangerous”.
“Maybe he’s really not taking it because the president lies about things characteristically,” Mr Schumer said on MSNBC.
“I don’t know whether he is taking it or not. I know him saying he is taking it, whether he is or not, is reckless, reckless, reckless.”
Reckless, reckless, reckless
At least two White House employees tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month, sparking concerns about steps taken by the administration to protect the president and sending vice president Mike Pence and other officials into varying forms of self-isolation.
The White House has since mandated that those in the West Wing wear face coverings and has introduced daily testing for the president, vice president and those they come in close contact with.
Mr Trump had an “interim” check-up in a November visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre that was not noted on his public schedule. His last complete physical was in February 2019.
Several prominent doctors said they worried that people would infer from Mr Trump’s example that the drug works or is safe.
“There is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective for the treatment or the prevention of Covid-19,” said Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. “The results to date are not promising.”
People should not infer from Mr Trump’s example “that it’s an approved approach or proven”, said David Aronoff, infectious diseases chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville.
Hydroxychloroquine can cause potentially serious heart rhythm problems even in healthy people, but “it’s hard to infer” that Mr Trump’s artery plaque, revealed in tests from his 2018 physical, makes the drug especially dangerous for him, Mr Aronoff said.
Mr Trump has repeatedly pushed the use of the drug with or without the antibiotic azithromycin, but no large, rigorous studies have found them safe or effective for preventing or treating Covid-19.
Two large observational studies, each involving around 1,400 patients in New York, recently found no benefit from hydroxychloroquine. Two new ones published on Thursday in the medical journal BMJ reached the same conclusion.
One, by French researchers, gave 84 hospital patients the drug and 97 others the usual care. There were no differences in the odds of death, need for intensive care or developing severe illness.
The other study from China was a stricter test: 150 adults with mild or moderate illness were randomly assigned to receive hydroxychloroquine or usual care. The drug made no difference in rates of clearing the virus or time to relief of symptoms, and they brought more side effects.
In April, the National Institutes of Health launched a study testing hydroxychloroquine versus a placebo drug in 500 Covid-19 patients.
Last week, NIH announced another study to see if hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin can prevent hospital admission or death in people with mild to moderate illness.
About 2,000 US adults with confirmed coronavirus infections and symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath will get the drugs or placebo pills.