In the U.S., Fauci continues to hold the same line as the rest of the medical community—cautious optimism, with a close eye on the many ongoing clinical trials. Trump, meanwhile, escalates as a peddler. “What do you have to lose?” the president said in a press conference on Saturday. “I’ll say it again: What do you have to lose? Take it. I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s their doctor’s choice, or the doctors in the hospital.” At a briefing yesterday, he intercepted a question for Fauci about hydroxychloroquine and told the reporter that the doctor wouldn’t be answering it.
What do you have to lose? is a dark sentiment from a president managing a crisis that his administration failed to prepare for: It failed to develop testing, failed to communicate, and failed to have enough face masks for doctors. There is, in fact, much to lose. Americans also need hydroxychloroquine to treat serious immune conditions and parasitic diseases. Since Trump began promoting the drug, people have been hoarding it, and it has been added to the growing list of drug shortages. Two weeks ago, in an attempt to procure some, an Arizona couple ingested chloroquine, which is meant to be used in fish tanks. The man died.
In such moments, the appeal of any treatment that could offer a glimmer of hope is understandable. But even if hydroxychloroquine eventually proves to be safe and useful to some people with the disease, touting it constantly distracts from the immediate needs of the crisis. Now is not a time to abandon the tried and true systems that keep people safe and create order. It’s a time to double down on the systems developed over decades to help us find the best treatments for diseases, and make sure that they are safe and effective. What do you have to lose? follows the logic of removing stop signs because they might slow people trying to get to the hospital.
In his capricious responses to this pandemic, Trump has given little indication that he respects, or even comprehends, the reasons for the scientific process. Hydroxychloroquine could end up as part of the treatment approach that one day saves lives. Outside of a proper testing process and clear messaging, it could cost lives. Addressing a world in a collective state of despair, Trump offers exaggerated hope and endangers people as he rambles.
On Saturday, Trump suggested research exists that shows people with lupus don’t get the coronavirus, implying that their use of hydroxychloroquine protects them. “There’s a rumor out there that because it takes care of lupus very effectively, as I understand it, and it’s a, you know, a drug that’s used for lupus,” he said, “so there’s a study out there that says people that have lupus haven’t been catching this virus. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not.”
There is no such study.
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James Hamblin, M.D., is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is also a lecturer at Yale School of Public Health and author of the forthcoming book Clean.