President Trump speaks during a White House meeting with people that have recovered from COVID-19 on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Reeling from mounting death tolls and escalating criticism of his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump searched for a silver lining on Tuesday by touting an unproven drug during a meeting with people who had recovered from the infection.
It was the latest episode in Trump’s weeks-long promotion of hydroxycloroquine as a possible treatment or preventive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, even though clinical trials have yet to confirm his claims.
“I haven’t heard a bad story. It’s pretty amazing, actually,” Trump said. “The word is out.”
Federal authorities have not approved hydroxychloroquine, which is commonly used against malaria and lupus, as an effective treatment for COVID-19, and safe dosages and potential dangers are still under study. Top health officials have cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
Nonetheless, the drug has received the president’s enthusiastic endorsement as he tries to demonstrate progress against the pandemic, turning the medical battle into another partisan flash point between Trump’s supporters and critics.
Some of the recovered patients who sat with Trump at a wooden table in the White House on Tuesday offered their own testimonials about the drug.
Karen Whitsett, a Democratic state representative from Michigan, credited hydroxychloroquine with helping her survive COVID-19. She said some members of her family had died from the infection but that others had improved after taking the drug.
“They took the hydroxy?” Trump asked.
“Yes, they did,” she said.
Mark Campbell, a former tight end for the Buffalo Bills football team, said hydroxychloroquine helped him beat the coronavirus.
“That made a big difference?” Trump asked.
“Within 12 hours, I already saw improvement,” Campbell said.
Some advocates for the drug at the White House — including Rudolph W. Giuliani, who represented the president during the Russia investigation, and Peter Navarro, a White House advisor on international trade — are not doctors or scientists.
Other medical professionals have made connections with Trump in an unorthodox way. On April 3, for example, Fox News host Laura Ingraham brought two doctors who had appeared on her show to the White House.
Dr. Stephen Smith, an infectious disease specialist in East Orange, N.J., had told Ingraham that he was using a mixture of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, an antibiotic, to treat his COVID-19 patients.
“I think this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” he told her, although the contagion has yet to peak.
Two days later, Smith was in the Oval Office, presenting details on his experiences to the Trump.
“He was encouraged by it,” Smith said of the president in a telephone interview.
After the meeting, Trump became even more bullish about hydroxychloroquine. The next day, he told a White House briefing that he may take the drug to help ward off the coronavirus.
“I’ll have to ask my doctors about that, but I may take it,” he said.
Trump added that the Food and Drug Administration had given the drug “rapid approval.” However, although the FDA has granted emergency authorization for the deployment of hydroxychloroquine from a national stockpile, it did not specifically approve the drug for use against COVID-19.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said the effectiveness of the drug can’t be judged until clinical trials are completed. It’s unclear how long that will take.
“I’ve used hydroxychloroquine on patients,” he said. “I don’t know if it works or doesn’t work.”
Adalja said he’s concerned that the president’s repeated promotion of the drug could interfere with research and doctors’ ability to treat their patients.
“Everybody is going to ask for hydroxychloroquine,” he said. “They’re going to say they I don’t want to be in a trial for remdesivir” — another drug discussed as a potentially effective treatment — “because I want hydroxychloroquine.”
Despite the questions, Trump’s reelection campaign cites the president’s early promotion of the drug as evidence of his decisive action during the pandemic, an effort to counter criticism that he ignored warnings of the pandemic for weeks.
One of the campaign’s Twitter accounts has shared stories from an actor and a Michigan state lawmaker who credit hydroxychloroquine with their recoveries.
“The media doesn’t want to talk about it, but Americans say President Trump is saving lives by mentioning #hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus treatment,” the campaign tweeted on April 7. “It’s deplorable that some Democrats and the media are attacking him for it!”