Veterans Administration hospitals are finally scaling back risky hydroxychloroquine — an anti-malaria drug aggressively pushed by President Donald Trump — to treat vets suffering from COVID-19, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testified Thursday before Congress.
The move comes after frightening findings on the use of the drug to treat people with the illness. France has banned the use of the drug for those with COVID-19, and Britain and the World Health Organization have suspended tests of hydroxychloriquine after researchers found that it was not only ineffective but also significantly increased patients’ risk of death.
Wilkie told the House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction that VA hospitals have “ratcheted down” the use of hydroxychloroquine as “we’ve brought more treatments online.” Wilkie said he suspected the trend would continue. It was prescribed only three times last week, according to Wilkie.
Wilkie just last week said in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that the VA had no intention of dropping its use of the drug, despite the troubling study findings. He revealed then that 1,300 American veterans suffering from COVID-19 had been treated with the drug beginning in late March. Schumer accused the VA of using vets as guinea pigs for Trump’s drug idea.
Trump called the drug a game changer in mid-March and encouraged its use as a cure for COVID-19. “You’re not going to get sick or die” if you take hydroxychloroquine, the president promised.
He claimed Sunday in an interview that he had just finished a two-week course of hydroxychloroquine himself. “And, by the way, I’m still here,” he said.
A study of 100,000 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 published last week in the medical journal The Lancet found that those who received hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 had a “significantly higher risk of death” compared with those who were not given the drug. A particularly troubling side effect of the drug is potentially fatal heart arrythmia.
In addition, “we were unable to confirm a benefit of hydroxychloroquine” on in-hospital outcomes for COVID-19, researchers concluded.
An April study of hospitalized U.S. veterans who were also given the drug revealed similar findings. The president attacked that study as a “Trump enemy statement” and insisted it was politically motivated.
Trump campaign megadonor Bernard Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot who was trained as a pharmacist, was a key driver in the push for the drug. Marcus, who donated more than $7 million to groups supporting Trump’s 2016 presidential run, founded the conservative nonprofit Jobs Creators Network, which helped orchestrate the push. The group was further funded by Big Pharma, including Bayer, Novatis and Teva, which all manufacture hydroxychloroquine.
Marcus took out Facebook ads and helped organize a petition drive and messages to the White House calling for relaxed regulations to get hydroxychloroquine to COVID-19 patients, ProPublica reported in March.
Despite the groundswell of advice against using the drug for COVID-19, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany again on Thursday strongly endorsed the “prophylactic” use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent contracting the coronavirus.
Former top federal vaccine official and whistleblower Rick Bright testified before Congress earlier this month that he was demoted in part for refusing to make the potentially dangerous drug more widely available, a strategy pushed by Trump and backed by politically connected interests. Studies about using hydroxychloroquine to fight COVID-19 had already failed to show promise early on, according to Bright.
He said he was led to believe the Trump administration would “stop at nothing to make the experimental drug widely available to the American people, no matter the consequences ... because it was seen by the administration as a ‘BIG immediate win,’” Bright said in his whistleblower statement.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday on CNN that the “scientific data is really quite evident now about the lack of efficacy” of hydroxychloroquine on treating COVID-19.
Hydroxychloroquine is commonly prescribed for malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
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