President Donald Trump continued to play up an unproven treatment as a promising remedy for the coronavirus, contradicting the advice of his top public health officials at a press conference Saturday — one in which he also rebutted reports that he knew about the dangers of the pandemic well before taking action.
In recent days, Trump has been promoting the potential of a drug called hydroxychloroquine — a common anti-malaria drug — as a treatment for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The off-the-shelf drug is easy to produce and has been anecdotally effective in China and South Korea.
He highlighted the treatment on Twitter Saturday, citing a study that, as Vox’s Umair Irfan has explained, had design issues that most scientists would see as problematic, including a small sample size and a lack of randomization. Those issues did not stop the president from retweeting the research, or from using it to support his claim that “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”
At his daily coronavirus press conference Saturday afternoon, Trump made a similar claim, and told reporters the hydroxychloroquine along with azithromycin, an antibiotic the study suggested be used in concert with hydroxychloroquine, is “going to be distributed” to New York and other states.
Both drugs are already widely available, but are not currently recommended by experts as viable coronavirus treatments. Trump disagreed with those experts Saturday.
“What do we have to lose? I feel very good about it,” the president said. “We’re going to find out very shortly whether or not it’s going to work.”
After Trump left the conference, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, explained that it isn’t possible to “find out very shortly” whether the drugs are effective against the virus — at least not without conducting a number of randomized trials.
“I’m not totally sure what the president was referring to,” Fauci said. “Many things you hear out there are what I call anecdotal reports. They may be true, but they’re anecdotal. .. If you really want to definitively know if something works, you have to do the kind of trial that you get the good information with.”
Nevertheless, Fauci said he understands Trump’s optimism, saying, “The president is talking about hope for people. And it’s not an unreasonable thing to hope for people.”
It is, however, unreasonable to give people false hope, and as Irfan wrote, “Right now, the most effective way to fight the virus remains not getting infected in the first place, which means using good personal hygiene like handwashing and social distancing measures.”
Trump also continued to claim he responded quickly to the coronavirus concerns
Trump has faced a great deal of criticism over the speed of his administration’s coronavirus response, and Saturday, once again claimed — despite evidence to the contrary — that he acted rapidly to contain and limit the spread of the virus.
Specifically, he denied a Washington Post report published Friday indicating that intelligence officials warned him about the potentially far-reaching spread of the coronavirus within the US as early as January, and that the administration dismissed that intelligence.
“They write inaccurately about me every single day, every single hour,” Trump said of the Post. “It’s so insulting when they write phony stories that they know are fake news.”
When asked directly about the Post report and when he learned just how concerning the coronavirus is, Trump said, “When I learned I started doing the closings, so, you know, probably around that time. We didn’t learn much.”
The administration first began “doing the closings” — that is, limiting travel — on February 3, about a month after first reportedly receiving the intelligence briefings. An official told the Post, “Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it.”
Saturday, Trump claimed the opposite, saying, “I acted far before anybody thought I should be.”
Even if the official quoted in the Post was somehow mistaken, Trump is incorrect in saying he acted before others said he should. He faced calls throughout February to take more aggressive action against the virus. And experts — like New York University epidemiologist Celine Gounder — have argued Americans are already living with the consequences of the administration’s delayed response.
Misrepresenting the past is an unhelpful thing to do in a time of crisis when trust is paramount. But there is little Trump — or anyone — can do about the administration’s initial response right now; what is more important is ensuring the response meets the challenges the virus presents now. And while Trump was on the whole more solemn compared to recent press conferences, giving the public unfounded medical advice is certainly not the way to do that.