The Mighty Logo

Trump's Prophylactic Use of Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 Sparks Backlash

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

Join The Mighty’s Coronavirus group to connect with other Mighties living through the pandemic. Read the latest updates, share helpful tips, or give and receive virtual support.

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump stirred up new controversy about the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine when he told reporters he was taking the drug to prevent COVID-19. Trump’s comments come as lupus patients who rely on hydroxychloroquine to manage their symptoms were already facing a shortage of the critical medication.

Trump addressed hydroxychloroquine in a briefing with reporters. He said many “good things” have come out about hydroxychloroquine and claimed many frontline workers are taking it to prevent COVID-19. He then told reporters he was taking hydroxychloroquine “right now,” and started taking it nearly two weeks ago after his White House doctor said he could.

“I think it’s good, I’ve heard a lot of good stories,” Trump said. “And if it’s not good, I’ll tell you … I’m not going to get hurt by it. It’s been around for 40 years for malaria, for lupus, for other things.”

Despite Trump claiming you won’t “get sick or die” from hydroxychloroquine because “it’s a pill that’s been used for a long time,” experts have raised the alarm about the medication’s safety. Hydroxychloroquine can have serious side effects, including dangerous heart rhythms, heart failure that can lead to death and hallucinations or psychosis. Several people have died after taking the drug on their own.

Skeptics, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), suggested Trump may be lying about taking hydroxychloroquine.

“Maybe he’s really not taking it because the president lies about things characteristically,” Schumer told MSNBC. “I don’t know whether he is taking it or not. I know him saying he is taking it, whether he is or not, is reckless, reckless, reckless.”

In response, the White House released a memo from White House doctor Dr. Sean Conley, saying that he agreed the medication may have benefits, though stopping short of confirming Trump is taking it.

“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,” Conley wrote. “The President is in very good health and remains symptom-free. He receives regular COVID-19 testing, all negative to date.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also called out Trump’s comments on hydroxychloroquine, highlighting Trump may be at higher risk for side effects. This including taking a jab at his body size, calling him “morbidly obese,” which caused a torrent of fat-shaming on social media.

“He’s our President and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group — morbidly obese, they say,” Pelosi told Anderson Cooper. “So, I think it’s not a good idea.”

Beyond the dangers of hydroxychloroquine, there’s also little scientific evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19 and it may be linked to higher death rates. A study among patients at Veterans Health Administration hospitals, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found hydroxychloroquine did not reduce the number of COVID-19 patients who needed ventilation and found higher incidents of death among those who took hydroxychloroquine.

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. The results from two drug trials published in the journal BMJ in May found hydroxychloroquine had no significant effect on COVID-19 patients compared to standard treatment. Those who were given hydroxychloroquine also experienced more adverse events than those who did not take the drug. In April, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautioned against using hydroxychloroquine outside of the hospital.

“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.”

Trump’s unfounded comments about hydroxychloroquine have led to shortages of the drug, which is used to treat autoimmune conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. In these patients, the drug acts as a disease-modifying treatment and can significantly reduce lupus symptoms or flares. Now lupus patients are reporting difficulty getting their regular prescriptions and in some cases are being forced to ration the drug.

After Trump initially touted the potential benefit of hydroxychloroquine, a Los Angeles-based lupus patient was told by her health network, Kaiser Permanente, it would not be refilling her hydroxychloroquine prescription to “preserve” the medication for critically ill COVID-19 patients. The woman was then “thanked” for her “sacrifice,” which Mighty contributor Jae Cobb, who has lupus, called out for the harmful message it sends people with chronic illness:

We talk about sacrificing our health so those with an acute illness can survive, but what about the continual sacrifices those of us with chronic illness are already making financially, physically and mentally? … Don’t deprive me of the medication I need and then thank me for my ‘sacrifice’ — my care is not disposable. We should be able to treat all COVID-19 patients without ‘sacrificing’ anybody. While they deserve accessible and affordable treatment, so do I.

Lupus patients and advocates called out Trump on Twitter following his latest comments, highlighting the impact of hydroxychloroquine shortages for patients who need the drug to manage their condition. According to the Associated Press, prescriptions of hydroxychloroquine increased by about 80% in March compared to last year.

Concerned about coronavirus? Stay safe using the tips from these articles:

Header image via heblo/Pixabay

Originally published: May 19, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home