President Donald Trump on Thursday ignored urgent concerns about the federal government’s ramshackle handling of the coronavirus outbreak, instead using a press conference to make vague or misleading claims about potential treatments while touting his administration’s supposed accomplishments in handling the crisis.
It was another data point showing that the president’s focus is on public relations, not management of a worsening catastrophe.
Testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is still lagging far behind demand; testing sites are overwhelmed and chaotic; hospitals are facing shortages of ventilators; and reserves of basic supplies like swabs are running out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised health care workers this week to use bandanas or scarves if there were no more masks, and Trump on Monday told governors seeking medical equipment such as respirators to “try getting it yourselves.”
Trump’s presser did little to address these pressing issues. He started the press conference by referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and shoehorned in his frequent claim that he defeated the self-described Islamic State. Much of Trump’s presser then focused on potential vaccines and treatment drugs in the works, continually claiming that he was making “exciting progress” and cutting red tape ― suggesting these medical solutions were highly promising and coming soon.
But prospective treatments for any disease can fail in studies, which has already happened with potential coronavirus drugs. Although doctors and researchers around the world are rapidly attempting to find ways to mitigate COVID-19, so far there is no proven treatment. The estimated production time for an effective vaccine is around 12 to 18 months, according to medical experts, and a Department of Health and Human Services report last week warned lawmakers to plan for the pandemic lasting “18 months or longer.”
Trump repeatedly singled out one potential treatment drug during the press conference, the anti-malarial Chloroquine, which he falsely suggested had been approved for use against COVID-19.
“It’s been approved, they took it down from many, many months to immediate,” Trump said. “We’re gonna make that drug available.”
But the Food and Drug Administration has not approved Chloroquine for treating the coronavirus, an FDA spokesperson confirmed to Bloomberg News. Instead, Chloroquine is approved for treatment of malaria ― its primary intended use.
Shortly after Trump claimed that the drug had shown “very, very encouraging results,” FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn took a much more restrained approach at the press conference, emphasizing that the drug needed to be tested to see if it could work in treating coronavirus.
“That’s a drug that the president has directed us to take a closer look at as to whether an expanded use approach ... benefits patients,” Hahn said. “We want to do that in the setting of a clinical trial, a large pragmatic clinical trial.”
Hahn said that the drug was also approved for treating an arthritis condition, and added that therapies take months to develop. But Trump pressed on, minutes later claiming that “if chloroquine or hydroxy chloroquine works, or any of the other things they’re looking at that are not quite as far out, if they work, the numbers are going to come down very rapidly.”
A day earlier, Trump favorite Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, aired a questionable segment in which his guest praised chloroquine.
Trump also told reporters during the conference on Thursday that a drug from the pharmaceutical company Gilead, called Remdesivir, is “essentially approved.”
Gilead issued a statement to an MSNBC reporter hours later stating “Remdesivir is an investigational antiviral with limited data at this time ― it is not approved anywhere globally and has not been demonstrated to be effective or safe for any use.”