Trump, FDA offer dueling signals at coronavirus briefing

President Trump on Thursday said the federal government would accelerate testing drugs to treat coronavirus, seeking to project optimism amid a massive spike in domestic cases of the virus. 

But Trump’s remarks about a specific malaria drug he said had shown promise at treating the COVID-19 disease were quickly contradicted by his own Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, suggesting the president’s optimism might have been outrunning the reality on the ground.

Trump said a drug used to treat malaria is showing promise at treating COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and would be available “almost immediately.”

“It is known as a malaria drug and it’s been around for a long time and it’s very powerful,” Trump said. “But the nice part is it’s been around for a long time so we know if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.” 

Those remarks were at odds with those of his FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, who shortly later repeatedly emphasized the importance of safety and said he does not want to “provide false hope.” 

“We may have the right drug, but it might not be in the appropriate dosage form right now, and it might do more harm than good,” Hahn said. 

At the start of his remarks, the president touted the work of the FDA and claimed his administration “slash red tape” in order to allow vaccines and therapies to treat the virus to be produced “as fast as it can possibly be done.”

Hahn noted during his own remarks that a vaccine for the coronavirus is currently in the first phase of a clinical trial and wouldn’t be ready for 12 months. 

The dueling messages from the administration came during a long White House press briefing at which Trump at times spoke of the need for unity in responding to the crisis.

Yet Trump also took shots at the media, responding to a question from a conservative reporter about whether the press was carrying water for Chinese propaganda by accusing the media of siding with China during the pandemic.  

Trump has come under intense criticism from Democrats and other observers for his handling of the government response to the pandemic, including for initially downplaying its significance. 

The president on Tuesday at a separate news conference said he had always knew the coronavirus crisis was a pandemic, despite earlier comments that he had no such concerns.

Cases in the United States have risen to more than 10,000, with more than 150 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There are also new fears about a shortage of certain medical supplies, such as protective face masks used by nurses and doctors.

Trump is also dealing with a rising economic crisis brought about by the spreading coronavirus, which has closed thousands of bars and restaurants and led to immediate layoffs across a number of industries.

The malaria treatment at issue is hydroxychloroquine, which is being studied as a possible COVID-19 treatment in a clinical trial of 1,500 people, but is not yet widely available because it is not clear if it works. There are no approved drugs yet for the treatment of COVID-19.

“The FDA’s responsibility to the American people is to ensure that products are safe and effective, and we are continuing to do that,” Hahn said at Thursday’s press briefing.

Trump said the United States is fighting a “medical war” against the coronavirus and asserted that the U.S. economy would bounce back from the pandemic after a sharp rise in unemployment claims was reported earlier Thursday morning. 

“When this hidden scourge is defeated, I think we’re going to go up very rapidly, our economy,” Trump said. 

Trump’s rhetoric was oftentimes at odds with the realities of the quickly spreading pandemic. 

He told reporters he would wait to direct mass manufacturing and production of equipment and after invoking the Defense Preparedness Act until it was “necessary,” even though hospital workers are clamoring for critical additional materials such as masks and ventilators.

The president said he felt things were running smoothly with testing despite numerous reports of shortages and Americans having difficulty getting diagnosed.

“I cannot explain a gap,” Trump said when asked about the difference between his comments and the anecdotal evidence. “I’m hearing very good things on the ground.”

Trump had earned some praise for the tone he has adopted in recent days, but he opened his remarks Thursday with an often rambling 20-minute statement in which he touted “Right to Try” legislation, boasted about the strength of the economy prior to the recent swoon and struggled to pronounce drug names as he laid out therapeutics in the works.

Even before accusing the media of siding with China, the president periodically chided the press, quipping at one point that “75 percent” of journalists should leave the room to improve social distancing. 

U.S. officials are warning about future spikes in the number of cases as the testing backlog across the country is reduced. 

“The number of tests positive is increasing. That is a dramatically important signature that everyone is doing their job,” said Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the federal government’s response to the virus. Birx noted that the upward spike would continue “over the next two to three days.”

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump

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