The Strange Origins Of Trump’s Hydroxychloroquine Obsession

How a “philosopher” who tweets anti-Semitism, two bitcoin bros and right-wing media helped put an idea in the president’s head.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s obsession with the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus may have started in part because of a self-described philosopher in China who is a fan of white nationalists, tweets anti-Semitic rhetoric and calls chloroquine “a Nazi drug that is here to teach a lesson to leftists about bias.”

Weeks before Trump first promoted the drug, a Twitter conversation about hydroxychloroquine between “philosopher” Adrian Bye and two cryptocurrency investors set off a chain of events that would bring the unproven drug to the attention of Elon Musk, Fox News pundits and Trump.

Trump has touted hydroxychloroquine as potentially “one of the biggest game-changers in the history of medicine” and repeatedly promoted its use on the coronavirus. He has asked about it both in public and privately, until recently mentioning it on a nearly daily basis, and the Trump administration has allegedly pressured health officials to distribute it despite their concerns about its safety. The drug’s bizarre path to Trump’s embrace highlights a dangerous information pipeline from questionable sources in right-wing media to the president.

On March 11, cryptocurrency investors Gregory Rigano and James Todaro mused about coronavirus treatments and potential death tolls on Twitter to their then-small number of followers. Bye, who says he has been living in the Wudang Mountains in central China for the past few years and formerly interviewed tech “thought leaders” for his startup, responded to one of Todaro’s tweets about the virus.

“Chloroquine will keep most people out of hospital. The US hasn’t learned about that yet,” Bye replied to Todaro.

The three briefly discussed medical studies and a YouTube video about chloroquine’s use. As Politico has reported, Rigano asked Bye for more information about chloroquine and data on its uses before telling Todaro and Bye on March 12 that he would be “publishing a report tomorrow [with an] eminent scientist, peer reviewed.”

“thank u james and adrian. next level humans,” Rigano tweeted.

On March 13, Rigano and Todaro touted chloroquine in a self-published, non-peer-reviewed Google doc falsely claiming to be affiliated with Stanford University School of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and the University of Alabama, Birmingham School of Medicine. (All three institutions told HuffPost that they had no connection to the document, and Google later removed it from its platform for violating its terms of service.) The paper largely cited a French study that scientists and the publisher of the journal it appeared in have subsequently criticized for its shaky methodology.

Bye complained to Todaro and Rigano on Twitter that their paper didn’t acknowledge him, saying, “I told you both about Chloroquine, and you didn’t even bother to mention me.” He also expressed his hesitation about the paper’s findings. Rigano replied minutes later that he wanted Bye’s permission to include him but “time was of the essence,” telling Bye to send him his email address. The Google doc was updated to include an acknowledgment of Bye.

The Google doc, with its grand claims and the help of its false affiliation with Stanford and other institutions, quickly went viral and was tweeted out to millions by prominent venture capitalists and Tesla CEO Musk ― none of whom appeared to vet its methods or sources. Fox News and other right-wing media jumped on the paper and touted the drug as a potential quick fix for the virus. Fox News host and informal Trump adviser Tucker Carlson had Rigano on his prime-time show, with Rigano falsely identified as an adviser to Stanford and claiming “what we’re here to announce is the second cure to a virus of all time.” Rigano made a similar appearance on right-wing radio host Glenn Beck’s program and with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who then privately met with Trump in early April to promote the drug.

The day after Rigano appeared on Carlson’s show, Trump mentioned the drug during a briefing for the first time and in the following days heavily promoted it. He called himself a “big fan” and heralded it as a potential “game-changer,” though Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned against the anecdotal evidence surrounding the drug.

Although Rigano and Todaro may have pushed hydroxychloroquine into Trump’s view, the drug was being studied and evaluated before they made radical claims about its effectiveness that skewed the public discourse on it. Hydroxychloroquine is currently being tested in clinical trials, but its effectiveness is still unclear and there is no solid evidence for claims it is the “cure” some have promoted. One recent study by Veterans Affairs and academic researchers that is pending peer review linked the drug to higher death rates in coronavirus patients than those who did not receive it, raising concern about its use and leading to complaints from veterans advocate groups. Another study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no benefit to patients hospitalized in New York. Other research is looking into whether it is effective in treating COVID-19 at earlier stages of the disease.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in late April that hydroxychloroquine should not be used outside of a clinical trial or hospital setting while it assessed the risk of adverse effects, including abnormal heart rhythms. A top U.S. government scientist has filed a whistleblower complaint saying that he was pressured to distribute the drug and then was removed from his position when he resisted.

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Bye, Rigano and Todaro are questionable sources for medical advice on coronavirus treatment and public health. Neither Bye nor Rigano is a doctor ― Bye has openly stated he’s not qualified to talk about medicine ― and Todaro is a medical school graduate who became a tech entrepreneur.

In addition to his lack of medical expertise, Bye also appears to repeatedly engage with bigoted ideology and far-right extremists. Bye has repeatedly tweeted anti-Semitic ramblings, has replied to white nationalists such as Richard Spencer and once tweeted a link to an Australian website that has promoted Holocaust denial. In one thread, he complained about Jews taking over “major power centers” and speculated about “Jewish verbal IQ” while asking if another user had “even read Mein Kampf?” He has stated “my hobby is researching Jews. It is very enjoyable.”

Bye also talked about chloroquine in late March on the podcast of Jean-Francois Gariepy, a Canadian white nationalist who The Daily Beast reported is accused of luring and trying to impregnate a developmentally disabled teenager while his U.S. immigration status was being contested.

“I’m not a white nationalist, not at all. I have a lot of friends who are and I like white nationalists, but I’m not one. I learned from them because there’s important ideas there that we need to understand,” Bye told Gariepy. Bye claimed that he researched chloroquine “using philosophy” and that coronavirus would “destroy feminism.” He also stated that he had been diagnosed with autism.

In a lengthy email to HuffPost, Bye denied that he was anti-Semitic or a white nationalist, asserted the existence of the Holocaust and condemned violence.

“I believe both white nationalists and Jews have important ideas, and it is necessary to understand the truth directly from them, not just soundbites labeling one side or the other as ‘evil.’ I am critical of Jewish power, and will continue to be so,” Bye told HuffPost.

“I stopped publishing on hydroxychloroquine some time ago because I am not a doctor or scientist, and I think the validity of the evidence must be in the hands of doctors and scientists to determine.”

Meanwhile, Rigano falsely claimed to be an adviser to Stanford, appearing on multiple right-wing news shows with that title and including it in his Twitter bio. Rigano also claims to have been working with Vladimir Zelenko, a small-town New York doctor popular in right-wing media and with Trump associates. Federal prosecutors are reportedly scrutinizing Zelenko over his false claims that he received federal approval for a drug study to treat coronavirus.

As questions mount about hydroxychloroquine’s use and potential side effects, some right-wing media has pulled back from its breathless coverage of the drug. Fox News and the Fox Business Network ― which mentioned chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine more than 1,300 times between mid-March and late April, according to The Washington Post ― both dialed down their focus on the drug. Rigano never appeared on Carlson or Ingraham’s show again.

Todaro has recently begun advocating against lockdowns and appeared on conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi’s radio program. Bye announced last month he would move on from tweeting about chloroquine to focus on “larger global issues.” He continues to tweet about Jewish people and cryptocurrency.

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