Experts Worry Trump's Hydroxychloroquine Claims Could Have Major Consequences

While Trump continues to push the antimalarial medication for coronavirus prevention, doctors fear that Americans will listen.

President Donald Trump and his administration may not be worried about the grave risks associated with taking hydroxychloroquine as a way to potentially prevent catching the coronavirus.

However, experts are.

Dr. Megan Ranney, a professor of emergency medicine at Brown University, told HuffPost that she would not prescribe hydroxychloroquine — sometimes called HCQ — to treat or prevent COVID-19.

“First, we don’t know whether it works,” she said. “Second, although it certainly has been used for years for some diseases, it also has well-known life-threatening side effects.”

HCQ is commonly used as a treatment for conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and malaria. Because the drug has anti-inflammatory effects, researchers are looking into whether it could play a role in treating or preventing the coronavirus. That research, however, has yet to reach any firm conclusions.

What Studies Say So Far

Trump has repeatedly promoted hydroxychloroquine as a possible coronavirus treatment and prevention method throughout the pandemic, at one time calling it possibly “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”

He took his public obsession with the drug one step further on Monday, claiming that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine daily for over a week.

Alex Chan, the founding chair of the University of California Irvine’s clinical pharmacy department, said that he did not know enough about the context surrounding Trump’s apparent decision to take the drug, but emphasized that it is not an example the general public should follow.

Chan said that it’s still too early to tell exactly how effective HCQ would be against coronavirus, since most of the research on this matter is ongoing, making it a risky option for people to take the drug if they haven’t been advised by their physician to do so.

There are some front-line health care workers who are taking HCQ, as Trump has mentioned, as part of a trial study on its effectiveness against coronavirus.

The Henry Ford Health System in Michigan is leading the first large-scale study on HCQ with a 3,000-person trial, focusing on health care workers and first responders. The trial is scheduled to last eight weeks and the results aren’t expected until August.

The Duke Clinical Research Institute also launched a study on the drug’s role in preventing infections in high-risk health care workers.

But some research that has been completed has worrying results.

A small study of 368 men by Veterans Affairs and academic researchers found higher death rates in patients who received HCQ or HCQ with azithromycin — a common antibiotic also known as Z-pack — when compared to those who did not receive any HCQ at all.

Another study of 1,400 people by Columbia University researchers found that the drug did not appear to lower the risk of death or needing a breathing tube for patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

The Potential Side Effects

Though hydroxychloroquine is prescribed to treat multiple diseases, it has potentially serious side effects, as many drugs do.

“As a medication expert, as a pharmacist, I do worry about some of the side effects that are related to the drug,” Chan said.

Those consequences are why Ranney said she would not prescribe the drug to a COVID-19 patient unless research conclusively suggested it would help.

“I would not want to put a patient at RISK unless I knew there was likely to be [a] benefit,” she told HuffPost in an email.

HCQ has been known to alter a patient’s heartbeat or interact negatively with other medications. Even as Trump promoted the drug, the Food and Drug Administration warned the public against using the medication in late April, citing a risk of heart rhythm problems and “dangerously rapid heart rate.”

People with underlying heart conditions may also be at higher risk of these issues if they use HCQ, and that risk worsens if they’re taking azithromycin.

Chan also pointed to previous reports that suggested that HCQ may lead to an increased risk of neuropsychiatric side effects.

“The most serious effect is that it can cause a life-threatening heart arrhythmia that can very quickly kill you,” Ranney added. “It also causes stomach upset, headaches, dangerous rashes, and other side effects. It can also cause poisoning when taken at too high of a dose.”

Unintended Consequences

Besides people suffering from the drug’s potential side effects, Chan and Ranney worry that Trump’s endorsement of HCQ could impact those who are already prescribed it.

Like all medicines, there is a limited supply.

“This medication is necessary for people with lupus and other disorders,” Ranney said. “If every American rushes out to buy it ― without knowing whether it will work or cause harm ― we risk depleting the supplies for those who depend on it.”

Ranney also thinks it’s “unethical” to divert supplies of the drug away from the ongoing research that is assessing HCQ’s effectiveness in treating the coronavirus.

And Chan is concerned about people who are already prescribed the drug: Trump’s consistent praise of HCQ has been a big story over the last two months, which has prompted media outlets, including HuffPost, to look into it more than they might otherwise.

Stories about the drug often summarize its potential side effects and because they are so serious, Chan worries that those who do need HCQ might stop taking it, because the side effects may appear severe.

“Now the media is starting to talk more about it because there’s so much pros and cons, and then people may stop taking” it, he said. “But, again, for COVID-19 prevention situations, there is not sufficient data” to justify its widespread use.

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