US President Donald Trump has claimed he is taking an anti-malaria drug to protect against the novel coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for COVID-19 patients in controlled clinical trials due to potentially fatal side effects.
Mr Trump told reporters he has been taking the drug hydroxychloroquine, and a zinc supplement daily “for about a week and a half now.”
He previously spent weeks pushing the drug as a potential cure or prophylaxis for COVID-19, much to the dismay 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 the new 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.”
The drug is an antimalarial medication and is also used to treat lupus and arthritis. However at high doses it can be fatal. It’s also feared the drug could cause heart problems in people with COVID-19.
Known side effects of the drug include nausea, diarrhoea, weight loss, dizziness, mood changes, nervousness, irritability, itching and hair loss, according to pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Mr Trump dismissed reports of side effects, saying: “All I can tell you is, so far I seem to be okay.”
Australian health authorities warn against use of drug
Not only could the drug prove harmful, it has yet to be proven effective in treating COVID-19 among infected patients, or in defending against it.
An observational study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month looked at data on nearly 1400 patients treated for COVID-19 at a New York hospital, more than half of whom received hydroxychloroquin.
The study did not show any reduced risk of intubation or death for those who took the drug.
“Clinical guidance at our medical centre has been updated to remove the suggestion that patients with COVID-19 be treated with hydroxychloroquine,” the researchers wrote.
An earlier study in April funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia found patients given hydroxychloroquine had a higher death rate than those not prescribed the drug.
Of the 368 patients in the study, which has not been peer reviewed, the 97 patients who took hydroxychloroquine had a 27.8 per cent death rate while the 158 patients who did not take the drug had an 11.4 per cent death rate.
Last month the US Food and Drug Administration – which oversees the authorisation of commercial medicines in the country – cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of hospitals or a clinical trials due to risk of heart rhythm problems.
Australian health authorities have issued their own warnings.
In April, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee – the peak body providing advice to the Australian government during the coronavirus crisis – said experimental use of medications such as hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 was not recommended, and should only be prescribed as part of a clinical trial.
‘He is experimenting with Americans’
Given the US president’s proclivity to tell easily disproven lies, many were quick to initially doubt the veracity of Mr Trump’s claim that he was taking hydroxychloroquine.
However the latest endorsement by the president has concerned some high profile doctors in the country who worry that people will infer from his example that the drug works, or is safe to take.
“There is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective for the treatment or the prevention of COVID-19,” Dr Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association told the Associated Press.
“The results to date are not promising.”
Meanwhile Dr David Aronoff, infectious diseases chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, said people should not take from the president’s comments “that it’s an approved approach or proven”.
Dr Belina Barnet, a senior lecturer on media and communications at Australia’s Swinburne University were among the many on social media to worry about the potential social consequences of the president’s claims.
“This man is dangerous not because he is ditching medical science in favour of his own theory but because a large group of gullible people may do the same,” she wrote Tuesday.
“He’s not experimenting on himself – he’s experimenting on Americans.”
Following the backlash, on Tuesday morning, AEST, the White House published a letter from Mr Trump’s doctor explaining the decision behind prescribing him the drug.
“The president is in very good health and has remained symptom-free. He receives regular COVID-19 testing, all negative to date,” the memorandum said.
“After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.”
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.