Four months after Donald Trump first began pushing the idea that his “common sense” said that hydroxychloroquine was a “game changer” in treating COVID-19, the whole waste of time, effort, and lives has come to a sorry end with the FDA pulling the emergency authorization for use of the malaria drug as a coronavirus treatment. Trump repeatedly flogged the drug in daily coronavirus task force meetings (back when Trump wasn’t dismissing the pandemic completely) with the catch phrase “What do you have to lose?” Trump even claimed that he was actually taking the drug himself, in a manner never approved by the FDA, to prevent catching COVID-19.
Now right-wing media is pointing at the FDA ruling to terminate the emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine as “a Deep State blindside” to make Trump look bad. Florida alone is sitting on a cache of 980,000 doses that were purchased by Trump-toady Ron DeSantis. But DeSantis’ heap of pills is nothing. Thanks to Trump and his anything-to-please staff, the United States currently has 66 million doses of hydroxychloroquine gathering dust in federal warehouses. Meanwhile, Trump’s hoarding has created a shortage that’s generated suffering for Americans who really need the drug.
When it comes COVID-19, there’s at least one other public figure whose statements have been as consistently incorrect, misleading, destructive, and downright jackass-ish as anything popping from the pie hole of Donald Trump—and that’s tech billionaire Elon Musk. In between posting demands to reopen no matter how big a public health threat it created, and whining about moving the headquarters of his companies out of California if they didn’t give in to his demands, Musk also tweeted and retweeted several claims that COVID-19 was less serious than expected, backed a stream of quack claims, and called efforts to protect public health “fascism.”
And Musk did one more thing: In a March 16 tweet, he started the ball rolling on an epic disaster that directed resources and researchers down a blind alley, resulted in an unknown loss of lives, generated a shortage of a vital drug for those with painful inflammatory conditions, and left the nation with a massive inventory of a drug that’s worthless in treating COVID-19.
It was on that date that Musk suggested that the nation look into hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for “C19” after linking to some anecdotal results. As The Washington Post reports, just hours after that Musk-tweet the drug was being touted on Fox Business. That evening, one of the authors of the paper Musk linked was invited on Fox as a guest. That author was not a doctor. Neither was the other author. The whole scramble to pile up millions of doses of a malaria drug started with an unreviewed paper by a lawyer and a cryptocurrency investor.
But as hydroxychloroquine gained buzz on Fox, it also got the endorsement of America’s #1 source for absolutely bassackward quackery, Dr. Mehmet Oz, along with other prominent tech assholes like Oracle’s Larry Ellison. And Ellison … talked to Trump.
Two days after that first tweet from Musk, Trump began pushing the drug in his daily appearances. Within a week, Trump declared it “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” Within another two days, there was a whole ecosystem of hydroxychloroquine promotion bouncing between Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Twitter, and the endless ranks of right-wing radio.
Every Republican politician in a hurry to please Trump jumped on the promotional bandwagon for the drug, despite the lack of anything more than word-of-mouth evidence. A day after that, Trump was using his daily briefing to give a heartwarming story of how hydroxychloroquine saved a man facing certain death.
That same day, March 23, Trump said something else. “At my direction, the federal government is working to help obtain large quantities of chloroquine.” Within the week, the FDA issued an emergency authorization for the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment against COVID-19.
Everything else Trump said about hydroxychloroquine was a lie, but that part about “large quantities” was true. As The New York Times reports, the federal government began to pile up hydroxychloroquine with a vengeance—even when that meant taking the drug away from people who genuinely needed it to treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and malaria.
According to the president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there was “a flimsy basis for the E.U.A. in the first place,” with the decision being made not on science, but on pressure from “television talk show hosts” and “the president’s pals.” That includes trade adviser Peter Navarro, who was a principle hydroxychloroquine cheerleader over the last few months.
It was Navarro who declared the FDA ending that emergency authorization “a Deep State blindside by bureaucrats who hate the administration they work more for than they’re concerned about saving American lives.” Navarro personally helped distribute more than 19 million doses of hydroxychloroquine.
There is no evidence that they saved any lives—though there is good evidence that the drug put lives at risk. Not only does hydroxychloroquine at high doses introduce a risk of heart issues, the FDA has also advised that it can reduce the antiviral effects of remdesivir, one of just two drugs that has so far continued to show positive benefits for treating COVID-19 after randomized trials.
Eventually, Trump’s eager staffers piled up a mound of hydroxychloroquine that would have served as a perfect mound for any drug-craving Smaug. Better than 94 million pills purchased or donated to the federal government by drug companies. As of Monday, 63 million of those tablets were still sitting around. Of the 31 million distributed to states, most of those are also sitting around. They’re just in a different set of warehouses.
From Musk’s tweet to Trump’s claims to a collection of scam artists and bootlickers, the push for hydroxychloroquine created a massive waste of resources, subjected patients to an unknown level of risk, and held out false hope that encouraged millions to take COVID-19 less seriously. It was heavily supported by Laura Ingraham, pushed by a whole array of medical quacks some of whom are now under investigation, and mentioned on Fox News over 500 times in just the last two weeks of March.
At the end of the day, it’s just another bankrupt idea from the king of bankruptcy. And right now, there are Trump supporters who are still taking the drug as some kind of sick symbol of loyalty. Not only that, but there is growing support on the right behind claims that scientists and doctors have colluded to “suppress” hydroxychloroquine because it’s cheap, as part of a international conspiracy to push more expensive drugs.
Don’t be surprised to see that claim come to a Trump tweet Real Soon Now.
Note: The Washington Post timeline of Trump and hydroxychloroquine is now two months out of date, but even then it had collected an amazing set of connections that’s well worth reading.