VA gave hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 to 1,300 veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has used hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus for approximately 1,300 veterans, according to a letter sent to the top Senate Democrat. 

VA Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieVA initiates process to remove headstones with Nazi symbols On The Money: Trump signs order targeting social media firms' legal protections | 2M more Americans file new jobless claims, pushing total past 40M | White House to forgo summer economic forecast amid COVID-19, breaking precedent Overnight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries MORE, in a letter and documents provided to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell blocks resolution condemning Trump over treatment of protesters House Democrat demands answers from Secret Service about role breaking up White House protests Pelosi, Schumer say treatment of protesters outside White House 'dishonors every value that faith teaches us' MORE (D-N.Y.), said the department had prescribed hydroxychloroquine to about 1,300 coronavirus patients of more than 10,000 veterans treated for the coronavirus "and will continue to do so in accordance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines." 

In addition to treating approximately 1,300 veterans with hydroxychloroquine for the coronavirus, the VA has also prescribed the medication to approximately 7,500 for non–COVID-19 conditions since the start of the pandemic.

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Wilkie told Schumer that the VA is also planning studies into the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria medication touted by President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE.

The VA's Office of Research and Development is planning a study on whether the drug would help prevent veterans potentially exposed to the coronavirus from being infected, and the San Francisco VA Medical Center is studying if it could treat coronavirus infections.

Wilkie noted that the VA facilities are also looking at whether existing drugs can be repurposed for coronavirus patients. 

The details come after Schumer sent a letter to Wilkie earlier this month about the department's use of hydroxychloroquine. 

CNN reported in April on a study, which hadn't been peer reviewed, based on hundreds of patients in VA medical centers that found that coronavirus patients taking the drug did not see a reduced need for ventilation and had higher death rates compared to patients who did not take the medication. 

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Wilkie, in a letter sent to veterans organizations, said the analysis of those hospitalized in Veterans Health Administration medical centers led to "misinformation" about what was taking place at its facilities. He said hydroxychloroquine was only being given to veterans at the "highest risk prior to receiving medication." 

But Schumer countered on Friday that the new details provided by Wilkie shows that the original VA study reported by CNN "is really just the beginning." He is asking for the VA to disclose the location of the VA facilities where trials will be conducted, as well as the location of the approximately 1,300 COVID-19 patients already treated with hydroxychloroquine and their health status.

“What I am able to say today is that more than one-thousand vets have been given hydroxychloroquine, a clinical trial is set to launch in California and other states that could begin as soon as next week," Schumer said.

"Why did we not know this until now? What happened to the 1,300 vets who took this drug so far and where will the next trials take place. We need these answers and we need them now," Schumer added.

Wilkie, in a separate letter obtained by NBC News, said that the VA had made the drug available pursuant to FDA guidelines “because some of our Veterans and families are requesting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment." 

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Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat malaria and conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and has not been approved for COVID-19. The FDA has authorized its use for COVID-19 in situations where clinical trials are unavailable or infeasible.

Trump has touted the drug, even though numerous studies have shown almost no evidence of any benefit. He told reporters earlier this week that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine, in combination with zinc, as a way to prevent getting COVID-19. 

“I think it gives you an additional level of safety,” Trump said, despite warnings that the drug can cause heart problems in certain patients.

Wilkie, in documents provided to Schumer, said neither he nor anyone else at the VA had been pressured by the White House to prescribe the medication.

"The idea that VA health care providers would make treatment decisions based on anything other than the best medical interests of our patients as individuals is preposterous," he added.