Trump's big gamble on an unproven pandemic drug

Trump's big gamble on an unproven pandemic drug
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The scariest words that a president with no medical background can say during a pandemic are, “I’m not a doctor, but . . .”

President Trump has been promoting the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a way to end the pandemic. He claims the drug could be one of the “biggest game-changers in the history of medicine,” while saying “I’m not a doctor. But I have common sense.” He even mused about taking the drug himself, as though it were a vaccine.

Trump seems oblivious to either the medical or political risks to him personally from the drug, which he claims has no harmful side effects. “It’s not going to hurt people. What do you have to lose?” 

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Actually, Trump could have a lot to lose if he swallowed hydroxychloroquine. “You could lose your life. It’s unproven,” is how Dr. Patrice Harris, the president of the American Medical Association, answered Trump’s rhetorical question.  She explained that the drug, while generally safe as a treatment for malaria and certain inflammatory conditions, can have potentially harmful complications. These include sudden cardiac death, loss of vision and psychosis.       

Clinical trials of the drug are underway, but currently hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness as a treatment for COVID-19  is unknown. The FDA authorizes its use from the National Strategic Stockpile only on an emergency basis for hospitalized COVID-19 patients who are unable to participate in a clinical trial of the drug. 

Caution is especially needed because promoters of this and a related drug, chloroquine, such as television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, rely heavily on a study conducted by Dr. Didier Raoult, a French infectious disease expert. Raoult is a controversial figure in France who denies Darwin’s theory of evolution. Researchers writing in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine asserted that there were “serious methodological” flaws in Raoult’s study; and the medical society that oversees the journal that published the study said Raoult’s work does not meet its ”expected  standard.”

By over-hyping these drugs, Trump may have created political risks for himself. He could have responsibly identified the drug as potentially promising, warned of its side effects, stressed the need for clinical trials and given more than lip service to the idea that COVID-19 patients should consult with their physicians before using it.  

Instead, like a riverboat gambler, he doubled down on his own medical judgments, even though they have already proven disastrously wrong. Through the lost, critical month of February and well into March, Trump insisted that the coronavirus was not as serious as the seasonal flu and that it was under “tremendous control,” when neither was true, as we have so painfully learned.   

One hesitates to deconstruct the reality-distortion field that Trump operates in, but perhaps he sees hydroxychloroquine as a way to re-assert leadership in a crisis. Despite some positive acts, such as barring travel from China in January, Trump’s pandemic crisis management has been largely associated with chaos. The United States has to beg other countries for medical equipment, states are fighting with states and with the federal government over ventilators, COVID-19 testing is lagging and the outbreak on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt turned into a debacle for the U.S. Navy. The steady, focused leadership of governors such as Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Hochul gets early boost as NY gubernatorial race takes shape EMILY's List announces early endorsement of Hochul MORE (D-N.Y.) has not been flattering to Trump. 

Recall that following the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, the Democrats lost the White House by a landslide in the 1920 election. Already, 56 percent of Americans do not trust Trump to give them accurate information about the pandemic. If his over-hyped drug turns out to be a lot less than a game-changer, and causes harm, even his own loyal supporters may question Trump for misleading them about a miracle cure in the midst of a devastating pandemic.   

Of course, as someone suggested, in that instance, Trump will simply say, “Hey, don’t blame me. I am not a doctor.”

Gregory J. Wallance 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.