We have to hope that the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine really are miracle cures for COVID-19, in spite of the questionable and anecdotal evidence to that effect thus far. Because if they aren’t, the federal government diverted crucial time and resources from other potential efforts because President Donald Trump saw Fox News constantly touting the drugs as potential game changers in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Trump effectively turned this weekend’s coronavirus press briefings into infomercials for the merits of hydroxychloroquine. He repeatedly recommended the drug as a COVID-19 treatment, telling reporters that he saw “very strong, powerful signs” of its potential and even saying he might take it himself, even though he has repeatedly tested negative for the virus.
Over the past few weeks, the president has defied his public health advisers by serving as a pitchman for the anti-malarial drugs, talking up their use as COVID-19 cures in briefings, interviews, and on Twitter. By contrast, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a Sunday morning interview that there is no definitive evidence pointing to the medicine’s use in treating the virus. When a reporter tried to ask Fauci about the drug during that evening’s press briefing, Trump prevented him from answering.
Fauci is correct. The Federal Drug Administration authorized the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment after Trump started talking them up last month, and some academic medical centers have adopted the drugs’ use. But evidence that they actually work is anecdotal, with small studies from France and China producing contradictory results and no full-scale clinical trials completed to date, and the drugs have a host of known but nonetheless potentially dangerous side effects. Moreover, according to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the FDA, hydroxychloroquine has been widely used to treat the virus in the U.S. and around the world since the pandemic’s outset, suggesting that any impact it might have is “subtle.” At the same time, some patients who rely on hydroxychloroquine to treat other diseases, like lupus, have been unable to fill their prescriptions.
The president, as he noted on Sunday, is not a doctor. He learned about the purported promise of the anti-malarial drugs in fighting COVID-19 from his television. Trump appears to be obsessed with the medicines because he values the reckless speculation of his favorite cable news network over the advice of Fauci and other public health experts. And no matter what the result may be on any individual case, it is dangerous for the federal policymaking process to turn on what the president hears from Fox.
Fox has been fixated on chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine since shortly after the network’s much-discussed “pivot” on the virus last month. Much of the network’s coverage in the early weeks of the pandemic centered on downplaying the virus’s risks, which convinced Fox viewers the virus was nothing to fear. Those viewers including Trump, who scoffed at the virus in his public statements and dragged his feet on a federal response. It took an intervention from Fox host Tucker Carlson, through his television show, and in person, to get Trump to take the virus somewhat more seriously -- which in turn led to a change in tone elsewhere at the network.
But almost as soon as they changed their tone to acknowledge that coronavirus was a real problem, not a “hoax” by Democrats and the media, Fox personalities began floating quick fixes to solve it.
That included heavy promotion of purported COVID-19 treatments, with coverage of hydroxychloroquine’s supposed benefits dating back as early as March 12.
Much of the network’s early coverage revolved around a lawyer named Gregory Rigano, who appeared for prime-time interviews to discuss a small, controversial French study pointing to hydroxychloroquine’s purported benefits on March 16 and March 18. Rigano presented the findings as a panacea, telling viewers of The Ingraham Angle that “we have strong reason to believe that a preventative dose of hydroxychloroquine is going to prevent the virus from attaching to the body and just get rid of it completely.”
Trump’s first plug for the drugs came just days later. He said during a March 19 press briefing that they had “shown very encouraging – very, very encouraging early results.” That night, Laura Ingraham credited her show with the president’s push for their use as a COVID-19 treatment.
With the president effectively signing off on Fox’s positive coverage of the malaria drugs, the Fox-Trump feedback loop was engaged: Trump’s remarks triggered more Fox commentary about the potential benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which in turn kept them fresh in his mind and led to more statements, which led to more coverage on the network. The weekend after his first remarks on the drugs, Trump tweeted in response to an Ingraham segment that hydroxychloroquine, in combination with another drug, could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine” and urged that it be “put in use IMMEDIATELY” to treat the virus.
Over a three-day period the following week, Fox’s personalities and guests promoted the use of the drugs more than 100 times. The coverage has continued ever since, with top Fox hosts like Sean Hannity frequently preaching the merits of the drugs to their millions of viewers, with little discussion of their potential risks.
The resulting Trump-Fox narrative establishes the president as taking heroic steps to save lives, while ignoring the series of failures he has overseen.
Trump’s Fox-fueled boosterism for the drugs quickly spilled over into federal policy. He personally pushed health officials in March to make the medications available to treat the virus, instructing “top officials at the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health to focus on the two drugs as potential therapies,” Reuters reported. The president’s interest triggered a “cascade of federal action ... to make the drugs more available, including the federal government’s grant of emergency authorization to supply them nationwide.”
That push has triggered a divide between Trump advisers who stress the need for caution in promoting the drugs and those who insist that they work. On Saturday, Fauci and Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro reportedly had the White House coronavirus task force’s “biggest fight yet” over hydroxychloroquine, with Navarro citing its “clear therapeutic efficacy” while Fauci pointed out that such evidence is anecdotal.
Trump has even reportedly urged administration officials to consult with Mehmet Oz, the notorious celebrity doctor who has emerged as one of hydroxychloroquine’s most adamant advocates on Fox. Oz has been a fixture on the network in recent weeks, and his on-air promotion of the drug apparently caught the president’s attention. Oz has made at least 39 appearances on Fox weekday programming this year, with 28 of those interviews coming on Trump favorites Fox & Friends and Hannity, according to Media Matters’ internal database.
In response to the president’s entreaties, “top administration officials, including Trump’s administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Seema Verma, have privately spoken to Oz in recent days to discuss the virus and his views on the possible treatment,” The Daily Beast reported.
Those who advocate for the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine often suggest that their use comes without tradeoffs. Trump himself has argued that because COVID-19 patients might otherwise die, it’s worth trying untested medicines in hope that it might cure them. He has taken to asking, “What do you have to lose?”
But while this might hold true for some individual terminal patients, on the level of federal policy, it is obviously wrong. Trump’s fixation on anti-malarial drugs as treatment for the virus -- promoted to his attention by his favorite television shows -- has forced public health officials to devote time, attention, and resources to those unproven medications, and not other potential therapies. And the time that members of the coronavirus task force and federal agencies have spent dealing with the president’s affection for the drugs is time that couldn’t be spent building up needed stockpiles of tests, personal protective equipment, and ventilators.
We have to hope that Oz and Hannity and Carlson and Ingraham and the rest of the Fox personalities who have been pushing these drugs are right about their promise -- no matter how disturbing it may be that the president's strategy for combating a deadly pandemic revolves around what people told him on his television. Because if the medicines are not effective, the coverage has ensured that the federal government would squander opportunities to pursue other options that might have been more effective in saving lives.
Either way, Fox’s dangerous hold on the president will continue. The same channel that has been telling him to put federal resources into chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine has also been instructing him that it is time to reopen the economy, a move that would assuredly lead to a higher death toll. On Saturday, Trump floated the idea of convening a task force to determine when that might be possible -- an idea he apparently picked up from Fox host Dana Perino.
Fox does not have its hosts under control, and we may pay a huge price for that.