Washington • The White House hurried Tuesday to defend President Donald Trump's decision to take a malaria drug to protect against the coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for COVID-19 in a hospital or research setting due to potentially fatal side effects.
Trump told reporters a day earlier that he has been taking the drug, hydroxychloroquine, and a zinc supplement daily “for about a week and a half now," after two White House staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump has spent months pushing hydroxychloroquine as a potential cure or preventive drug for COVID-19 against the cautionary advice of many of his administration’s top medical professionals. The drug has the potential to cause significant side effects in some patients and has not been shown to combat the new coronavirus.
Amid concerns from some public health experts that Trump’s example could send more people to misuse the drug, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that “tens of millions of people around the world have used this drug for other purposes,” including malaria prophylaxis. She emphasized that “any use of hydroxychloroquine has to be in consultation with your doctor. You have to have a prescription. That’s the way it must be done.”
The drug is also prescribed for some lupus and arthritis patients.
At the White House, Trump said his doctor did not recommend hydroxychloroquine to him, but that he requested it from the White House physician.
"I started taking it, because I think it’s good," Trump said. "I’ve heard a lot of good stories.”
The White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said in a statement released through the press office that, after “numerous discussions” with Trump about the evidence for and against using hydroxychloroquine, “we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.”
The Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat COVID-19 outside of hospital or research settings, due to sometimes fatal side effects. Regulators issued the alert for the drug, in part, based on increased reports of dangerous side effects made to U.S. poison control centers.
Calls to centers involving hydroxychloroquine increased last month to 96, compared with 49 in April 2019, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers provided to the AP. It was the second month of elevated reports involving the drug, following 79 calls in March. The problems reported included abnormal heart rhythms, seizures, nausea and vomiting.
Trump dismissed reports of side effects, saying, “All I can tell you is, so far I seem to be OK.”
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in an emailed statement Tuesday: “The decision to take any drug is ultimately a decision between a patient and their doctor."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN, "He's our president, and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and his, shall we say, weight group ... morbidly obese, they say.”
Trump is 73. At his last full checkup in February 2019 he passed the official threshold for being considered obese, with a body mass index of 30.4. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a BMI of 40 or above is considered “severe” obesity, which some also call “morbid” obesity.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called Trump's remarks on the drug dangerous.
"Maybe he's really not taking it because the president lies about things characteristically,” Schumer said on MSNBC. He added: “I don’t know whether he is taking it or not. I know him saying he is taking it, whether he is or not, is reckless, reckless, reckless.“
At least two White House staffers tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, sparking concerns about the steps taken by the administration to protect the president and sending Vice President Mike Pence and other officials into varying forms of self-isolation.
The White House has since mandated that those in the West Wing wear face coverings and has introduced daily testing for the virus for the president, vice president and those they come in close contact with. Trump says he continues to test negative for the coronavirus.
Trump last underwent an “interim” medical checkup in a November visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that was not noted on his public schedule. His last complete physical took place in February 2019.
Several prominent doctors said they worried that people would infer from Trump’s example that the drug works or is safe.
“There is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective for the treatment or the prevention of COVID-19,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. “The results to date are not promising.”
People should not infer from Trump’s example “that it’s an approved approach or proven,” because it’s not, said Dr. David Aronoff, infectious diseases chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
Hydroxychloroquine can cause potentially serious heart rhythm problems even in healthy people, but “it’s hard to infer” that Trump’s artery plaque, revealed in tests from his 2018 physical, makes the drug especially dangerous for him, Aronoff said.
White House officials did not say whether any other administration officials were taking the drug.
Trump said he took hydroxychloroquine with an “original dose” of the antibiotic azithromycin. The president has repeatedly promoted the use of the drug with or without the azithromycin, but no large, rigorous studies have found them safe or effective for preventing or treating COVID-19.
Two large observational studies, each involving around 1,400 patients in New York, recently found no COVID benefit from hydroxychloroquine. Two new ones published Thursday in the medical journal BMJ reached the same conclusion.
Prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine surged roughly 80% in March to more than 830,000 compared with same period in the prior year, according to data tracking firm IQVIA. That jump in prescribing came before the federal government accepted nearly 30 million doses of the drug donated to the strategic national stockpile by foreign drugmakers. Since then, millions of those tablets have been shipped to U.S. hospitals nationwide for use treating patients with COVID-19.
Marchione reported from Milwaukee. AP Medical Writer Matthew Perrone in Washington contributed to this report.