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Hydroxychloroquine-gate and Trump’s war on medical science

President Trump provoked an uproar of criticism when he announced that he has begun taking hydroxychloroquine as protection against COVID-19 even though it is unproven for that purpose and apparently wasn’t recommended by the White House physician. Trump, who started taking the drug around the time White House staffers, including his valet, were diagnosed with COVID-19, gloated that, “I’ve been taking it for the last week and half. And I’m still here.”  

Maybe we should call this hydroxychloroquine-gate, but it is not really about the efficacy of this drug. Rather, Trump’s ingestion of hydroxychloroquine allows him, once again, to enthusiastically defy a medical consensus. As such, it is a presidential political shot in one of the two battles being waged at cross-purposes in the COVID-19 War, as I will shortly explain.             

But first, appreciate that there is an element of Russian roulette to Trump’s ingestion of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that the drug has no proven benefits for treating COVID-19, has significant side effects and should only be used in a hospital or in clinical trials. In fact, hydroxychloroquine has some 40 side effects, including potentially fatal heart rhythm problems

While not definitive, two recent observational studies involving thousands of COVID-19 patients found that they did not benefit from hydroxychloroquine. An observational study of patients in hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that those given the drug had a higher death rate than those who were not. Pending ongoing clinical trials, there currently is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective as a vaccine, which is how Trump appears to regard it.  

Even some commentators and hosts on Fox News, which previously played a major role in persuading Trump to back hydroxychloroquine, have distanced themselves from his use of the drug. Dr. Manny Alvarez, a Fox News health contributor, called Trump’s ingestion of hydroxychloroquine “highly irresponsible.” Fox host Neil Cavuto warned viewers that, for anyone with pre-existing conditions, taking hydroxychloroquine “will kill you. I cannot stress this enough. This will kill you.” Actually, according to Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, hydroxychloroquine can cause deadly heart complications “in people who are healthy.”  

So why is President Trump taking it? That brings us to the two battles. In one battle the American medical community –  from the government health agencies to the research laboratories to the very brave front line personnel in hospitals, EMT units and elsewhere – is fighting a deadly virus, some in the medical equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.  

In the other battle, Trump, who cannot stand to share a spotlight with anyone, is doing everything he can to undermine the credibility of the strategists in that fight, the nation’s leading health care experts. Despite the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Trump refuses to wear a face mask; encourages states to disregard the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s recommendations on how to safely open the economy; marginalizes the CDC in the pandemic fight; and now publicly flouts the FDA’s warnings about hydroxychloroquine.  

So, here is what hydroxychloroquine-gate comes down to. Donald Trump, whose background is in real estate and has no medical training, wants you to believe that he is better qualified to give medical advice to the American people about the pandemic than, for example, the FDA or Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. If you believe that, well, I have some anti-COVID-19 Clorox disinfectant that you can safely swallow. But unfortunately 37 percent of Americans still have a good amount or great deal of trust in what Trump says about the coronavirus (60 percent have no trust or not much trust in what he says).  

Trump has turned the pandemic into a zero-sum game. If he wins his battle against medical science, the coronavirus will win its battle against us. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.

Tags #coronavirus #2019nCoV #contagion Anthony Fauci Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC Clorox coronavirus Coronavirus coronavirus covid-19 Donald Trump FDA Fox News Hydroxychloroquine

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