FACT CHECK: Trump pitches drug not approved for coronavirus
Posted April 6, 2020 5:31 p.m. EDT
Updated April 6, 2020 5:34 p.m. EDT
President Donald Trump is pitching a medicine for COVID-19 sufferers that science has not concluded is effective or safe for their use. "Take it," he said of the drug.
For people sick with the coronavirus, he said Sunday, "It can help them but it's not going to hurt them." In fact, it may or may not help some people, and it may or may not hurt them.
His straight-ahead advocacy of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, is the latest and one of the most consequential examples of Trump and public-health authorities not being on the same page in the pandemic.
His statement came during a weekend when he also misrepresented the facts behind his firing of the intelligence community's inspector general whose handling of a whistleblower complaint led to impeachment proceedings. Over the previous days, he'd spread a number of distortions on the pandemic.
A look at his recent remarks:
TRUMP, on the government's decision to stockpile millions of doses of hydroxychloroquine drug to make it available for patients with COVID-19: "What do you have to lose? I'll say it again: What do you have to lose? Take it. I really think they should take it. But it's their choice and it's their doctor's choice, or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine — try it, if you'd like." — news briefing Saturday.
TRUMP: "They say taking it before the fact is good. ... I'm not acting as a doctor. I'm saying do what you want. ... It can help them but it's not going to hurt them." — briefing Sunday night.
THE FACTS: He's making unverified claims about a drug that can have serious side effects and may not work. The drug has not been approved as a treatment for COVID-19 and Trump's own health experts say more studies are needed to know whether it's safe and effective to use.
The president has been talking up hydroxychloroquine, a drug long used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, after very small preliminary studies suggested it might help prevent coronavirus from entering cells and possibly help patients clear the virus sooner.
Doctors can already prescribe the malaria drug to patients with COVID-19, a practice known as off-label prescribing. Research studies are now beginning to test if the drugs truly help COVID-19 patients, and the Food and Drug Administration has allowed the drugs into the national stockpile as an option for doctors to consider for patients who cannot get into one of the studies.
But the drug has major potential side effects, especially for the heart, and large studies are underway to see if it is safe and effective for treating coronavirus. The FDA says people should not take it without a prescription and emphasizes that the malaria drugs being explored "are not FDA-approved for treatment of COVID-19."
On Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said Americans shouldn't consider hydroxychloroquine a "knockout drug."
"We still need to do the definitive studies to determine whether any intervention, not just this one, is truly safe and effective," he said on Fox News.
The American Medical Association, the American Pharmacists Association and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists in a joint statement previously cautioned against "prophylactically prescribing medications currently identified as potential treatments for COVID-19."
That means prescribing a medicine for the purpose of warding off a disease or preventing its spread.
TRUMP: "The problem is when something like this comes along, which you don't expect. Look, 1917, it's a long time ago, perhaps 100 million people died. It's a long time ago, so people don't think it's going to happen." — briefing Sunday night.
THE FACTS: He got the year wrong for the Spanish flu and appeared to overstate deaths from it. The pandemic spread from early 1918 to late 1920. It killed an estimated 50 million or more worldwide, with about 675,000 of the deaths in the U.S., says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
TRUMP, on firing Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general: "I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report — it was fake. It was totally wrong." — news briefing Saturday.
THE FACTS: No, the whistleblower's accusations have not been shown to be wrong. Key details have been corroborated.
For example, the White House account of Trump's July 25, 2019, phone call with Ukraine's new president showed that the whistleblower had accurately summarized the conversation, as relayed by unidentified U.S. officials, in the complaint Atkinson sent to the acting director of national intelligence. Witnesses who heard the call testified to the accuracy of that account.
TRUMP, suggesting that Atkinson had claimed that the whistleblower complaint regarding Ukraine should be discounted because of political bias: "He even said it was politically biased. He actually said that." — news briefing Saturday.
THE FACTS: He actually did not say that.
Atkinson did not state that the complaint was "politically biased" or suggest that it should not be regarded seriously. To the contrary, Atkinson wrote in a letter to Joseph Maguire, then the acting director of national intelligence, that any potential bias on the whistleblower's part did not take away from his overall conclusion that the complaint was "credible." He noted that an initial review by his inspector general's office had found support for key allegations in the complaint, including that Trump had put pressure on Ukraine's leader to take action favorable to his re-election campaign.
THE VIRUS THREAT
TRUMP, on a warning that had just been delivered by Dr. Deborah Birx of the coronavirus task force that more Americans need to heed distancing steps ordered by many states and recommended by Washington: "She wasn't referring to our country, she was referring to one state." — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: No, she was talking about more Americans overall needing to keep away from each other. More specifically, Birx said the outbreak would not be spreading by now in areas with low infection rates if everyone were following the guidelines. Instead, officials are now seeing cases of people who were infected after the guidelines took effect.
"This should not be happening any longer in new places if people are doing the social distancing, washing their hands, not getting together in large groups more than 10," she said at the briefing where Trump then tried to tamp down her warning out of his concern about the "headlines tomorrow."
Birx said: "We see Spain, we see Italy, we see France, we see Germany. When we see others beginning to bend their curves, we can bend ours.
But it means everybody has to take that same responsibility as Americans." Bending the curve means flattening out the rate of increase in cases.
She added: "Yes. There are states that are dead flat. But, you know, every — what changes the curve is a new Detroit, a new Chicago, a new New Orleans, a new Colorado."
TRUMP: "Four weeks ago, we had the greatest economy in the history of the world. The greatest in the world — greatest in the history of the world." — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: Not true. The economy was healthy back then but not the best in U.S. history, much less world history.
Economic gains largely followed along the lines of an expansion that started more than a decade ago under President Barack Obama. And while posting great job and stock market numbers, Trump never managed to achieve the rates of economic growth he promised in the 2016 campaign. The U.S. economy was not the world's best in history when this started.
TRUMP, going back to that period four weeks ago: "And then, one day, I get a call from Deborah, who's fantastic, and from Dr. Fauci. And he said and she said, 'We have a problem. I said, 'What's the problem?' And they said, 'We may have to close it up.' I said, 'Close what up?' They said, 'Close up the country.' And I said, 'What's that all about?'" — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: You'd think that Trump was just learning about the outbreak from Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health in the phone call. That's not the case.
Trump knew the U.S. had "a problem" well before that timeline of roughly early March.
By then the U.S. had restricted travel from abroad, experienced its first coronavirus infections and was told to expect the outbreak to spread in the country. The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency Jan. 30.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: "I don't believe the president has ever belittled the threat of the coronavirus." — CNN interview Wednesday.
MITCH McCONNELL, Senate majority leader: The coronavirus crisis "came up while we were tied down in the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything, every day was all about impeachment." — interview Tuesday with radio host Hugh Hewitt.
THE FACTS: While Pence claims Trump always treated the virus threat seriously, McConnell suggests Trump may not have because he was distracted by impeachment. Neither claim is credible.
Trump says he would not have done anything faster on the virus, absent impeachment. And he actually belittled the coronavirus threat repeatedly from January to mid-March, maintaining his position even after the Senate acquitted him Feb. 5 in his impeachment trial. He dismissed the threat as a small number of U.S. cases that were under "control" and would fall to zero by April.
On Feb. 10, he asserted "we're in great shape ... we have 12 cases" and told Fox Business it will be fine because "in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather. And that's a beautiful date to look forward to."
"When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done," he said Feb. 26. A day later he said: "It's going to disappear. One day — it's like a miracle — it will disappear,"
"It's got the world aflutter, but it'll work out," Trump told the National Association of Counties on March 3. Along the way, he said Democrats who were calling on him to do more were perpetuating a hoax.
On March 9, he tweeted the 546 cases and 22 deaths experienced by then in the U.S. were no reason to take drastic steps: "Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on."
Trump now acknowledges the U.S. could see 100,000 to 240,000 deaths from the pandemic even if current distancing guidelines are maintained. When asked Tuesday if impeachment proceedings had distracted him from the U.S. coronavirus response, he said, "I don't think I would have acted any differently or I don't think I would have acted any faster."
TRUMP: "I have, you know, hundreds of millions of people. Number one on Facebook. Did you know I was number one on Facebook? I mean, I just found out I'm number one on Facebook. I thought that was very nice for whatever it means." — news briefing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: It doesn't mean anything because it's not true. He's nowhere close to No. 1.
Trump has 29 million followers on Facebook, far below former President Barack Obama, who has 54 million. Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer player, has 126 million.
TRUMP: "I stopped some very, very infected, very, very sick people, thousands coming in from China long earlier than anybody thought, including the experts. Nobody thought we should do it except me. And I stopped everybody. We stopped it cold." — interview March 30 with "Fox & Friends."
PENCE: "The president suspended all travel from China in January." — interview Wednesday with CNN.
THE FACTS: Trump didn't "stop cold" all the people infected with coronavirus from entering the U.S. with a ban of all travel from China. There were gaps in containment and initial delays in testing, leading to the U.S. rising to No. 1 globally in the number of people infected by COVID-19.
Nor did Trump decide on his own to impose travel restrictions on China — he followed a consensus recommendation by his public-health advisers.
His order in late January temporarily barred entry by foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous 14 days, with exceptions for the immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Americans returning from China were allowed back for two more weeks.
They were given enhanced screenings. But screenings can miss people who are carrying the virus but showing no symptoms.
TRUMP: "So we have more cases than anybody, but we're doing really well, and we also have a very low — relative to other countries — very low mortality rate. And there are reasons for that." — interview March 30 with "Fox & Friends."
TRUMP: "We've been doing more test — tests than any other country anywhere in the world. It's one of the reasons that we have more cases than other countries, because we've been testing. It's also one of the reasons that we're just about the lowest in terms of mortality rate." — news briefing on March 29.
THE FACTS: His suggestion that the U.S. response is better than other countries' because its mortality rate is "just about the lowest" is unsupported and misleading.
It's too early to know the real death rate from COVID-19 in any country. Look at a count kept by Johns Hopkins University, and you can divide the number of reported cases by the number of recorded deaths. But that math provides a completely unreliable measurement of death rates, and the Johns Hopkins tally is not intended to be that.
First, the count changes every day as new infections and deaths are recorded.
More important, every country is testing differently. Knowing the real denominator, the true number of people who become infected, is key to determining what portion of them die. Some countries, the U.S. among them, have had trouble making enough tests available. When there's a shortage of tests, the sickest get tested first. And even with a good supply of tests, someone who's otherwise healthy and has mild symptoms may not be tested and thus go uncounted.
The result is a hodgepodge of numbers that get sorted out as the crisis diminishes. Indeed, initial death rates were thought to be as high as 4% in parts of China. But a report published Monday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases calculated that 1.38% actually is the best estimate of deaths among confirmed cases across China and that accounting for unconfirmed cases could drop that rate below 1%.
Early on Fauci estimated that the death rate in the U.S. might hit around 1%, which would be 10 times higher than mortality from a typical flu season.