Fox News viewers were warned on Monday not to take medical advice from the president, following Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that he takes the drug hydroxychloroquine, based on his belief that it could prevent him from becoming infected with Covid-19 — a belief unsupported by scientific evidence.
Moments after the president told reporters that he began taking the medication about a week and a half ago — which is when the vice president’s press secretary, Katie Miller, tested positive for the coronavirus — Fox News host Neil Cavuto issued an urgent warning, telling the channel’s largely elderly audience that there is no evidence the drug can ward off Covid-19 but it can cause potentially fatal irregular heartbeats.
Fox News's Neil Cavuto is stunned by Trump's announcement that he's taking hydroxychloroquine: "If you are in a risky population here, and you are taking this as a preventative treatment ... it will kill you. I cannot stress enough. This will kill you." pic.twitter.com/e6D5alfAgc— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 18, 2020
After defending a recent study that suggested the drug did not help veterans with Covid-19, which Trump had baselessly described as politically motivated, Cavuto told viewers to be careful, since people predisposed to irregular heartbeats could die as a result of taking hydroxychloroquine. What’s more, as a cardiologist told The Intercept last month, many people don’t know that they have the underlying heart issue that predisposes them to dangerous heart rhythms.
“If you are in a risky population here and you are taking this as a preventative treatment to ward off the virus, or in a worst case scenario, you are dealing with the virus, and you are in this vulnerable population, it will kill you,” Cavuto said. “I cannot stress enough: this will kill you.”
That urgent warning was echoed by Dr. Bob Lahita, who told Cavuto that doctors at St. Joseph University Hospital, where he is chairman of medicine, had seen “absolutely no effect” on Covid-19 from hydroxychloroquine. Lahita also explained that the drug needs to be used only under close medical supervision, since it can cause “a fatal arrhythmia, which means an irregular heart rhythm, which will cause your death — your death will be instantaneous.”
Within minutes, however, those dire warnings were undercut by Cavuto’s next guest, a Fox News medical contributor, Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, who called in to say that she believed that hydroxychloroquine had helped some Covid-19 patients she treated and that she thought the president’s decision to try the drug as a preventive measure was “very smart.”
Less than 30 minutes after the president made the remarks that prompted Cavuto’s alarm, regular service was resumed on the pro-Trump network when the pundit Greg Gutfeld appeared and downplayed concerns about the potentially fatal side effects of the drug. “If it’s available to you and you can take it, you do it,” Gutfeld said.
The pundit also insisted that Trump was right to dismiss research from the department of veterans affairs that showed no benefit from hydroxychloroquine, claiming that “the media glommed onto” that study “because they want the drug to be a failure because they want Trump to fail.”
In the following hour’s programming block, however, Dr. Manny Alvarez, the senior managing editor for health news at Fox, seemed to reject that take, telling the anchor Bret Baier that the president’s promotion of the drug was “highly irresponsible.”
Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing editor of Fox News' health news, says that it is "highly irresponsible" for Trump to claim that he's now taking hydroxychloroquine.— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) May 18, 2020
He also wants the White House physician to explain what's changed since studies have shown no benefits. pic.twitter.com/QAxYVTM1kG
In his defense of the drug on Monday, Trump had referred to an observational, retrospective analysis of the records of 368 Covid-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine at Veterans Affairs hospitals, which was done by independent researchers at two universities with VA approval, as “that phony report that was put in.” The study displeased the president because it found “no evidence” that the drug he has repeatedly promoted, hydroxychloroquine, kept those infected with Covid-19 from needing ventilators, and suggested that the drug might have increased the likelihood of death.
Ignoring a larger study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of 1,438 patients hospitalized in metropolitan New York, that also found the drug to be ineffective at treating Covid-19, Trump falsely claimed that the survey of veterans was the only one that undercut his claims for the drug, and implied that it had somehow been skewed by his political enemies.
“The only negative I’ve heard was the study where they gave it — was it the VA? — with, you know, people that aren’t big Trump fans gave it,” the president claimed. He then accused Veterans Affairs staff of abusing patients — “we had thousands of people that were sadists, that were stealing, that were robbers, that were horrible people, they beat up our veterans…” — in an apparent effort to suggest that the scientists who conducted the study, who were mostly not affiliated with VA hospitals, had somehow rigged the results to make him look bad. The report, he claimed, “was a very unscientific report.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump repeated his false claim that the study of veterans was “the only bad survey,” again ignoring a series of other studies that have also cast doubt on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, and maintained, without evidence, that “it was a Trump enemy statement.”
As the Associated Press reported last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie “had wrongly asserted publicly without evidence that the drug had been shown to benefit younger veterans,” after the study was released.
Somewhat lost in the reaction to Trump’s announcement that he was taking the drug on his own initiative, after a White House doctor agreed to his request to prescribe it, was the fact that the president brought up the subject of hydroxychloroquine without being asked about it, in the course of a rambling attack on whistleblowers.
After disparaging the intelligence community whistleblower who had revealed his own corrupt effort to coerce the president of Ukraine into smearing Joe Biden last year, Trump sought to tarnish Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted vaccine and emergency preparedness official who filed a whistleblower complaint this month.
Bright said that he was forced out of his position in the department of health and human services in part because, “contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the Administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit.”
The doctor also said that he had “resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public,” and instead “insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician.” Bright said that he had only approved the use of the two drugs in clinical settings because they “have potentially serious risks associated with them, including increased mortality observed in some recent studies in patients with COVID-19.”
Bright reiterated those objections in an interview with “60 Minutes” which prompted a series of outraged tweets from Trump after it aired on Sunday night.
“I believe my last-ditch effort to protect Americans from that drug was the final straw that they used.” Government scientist Rick Bright says he believes he was retaliated against for raising concerns about hydroxychloroquine. https://t.co/pbZFkHyNN8 pic.twitter.com/KnHoFZgwvU— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) May 17, 2020
Rather than engage with the substance of any of those objections to how his government responded to the global pandemic, Trump reacted as he does to any criticism, by claiming that the only possible explanation for it is that the person who leveled it has invented a false charge to undermine him politically.
This is why Trump so frequently connects criticism of his handling of the pandemic to objections to his conduct regarding Ukraine, which he also frames as purely partisan. During his visit to the CDC in March, for instance, when Trump claimed that there was no problem with testing and said, “anybody that needs a test can have a test,” he added, “and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect.” For Trump, who often refers to the partial transcript of his call with Ukraine’s president as “the letter,” the document that alarmed almost everyone else who read it revealed that he had done nothing wrong.
That’s also why, when asked on Monday about one of his tweets in response to Bright’s “60 Minutes” interview, in which he called for a review of the “whole Whistleblower racket,” Trump began his response with a three minute diatribe about the Ukraine whistleblower.
When Trump finally arrived at the subject of Bright, he referred to him not by name but as “this other guy, with the hydroxychloroquine.”
Clearly not grasping that Bright had explained in his formal complaint that he had signed a letter approving only limited use of the drug, under supervision, and had rejected a White House request to make hydroxychloroquine “available to the public outside of a hospital setting and without physician supervision,” Trump falsely claimed that the ousted official had signed off on the drug before saying later that “he doesn’t believe in it.”
“A lot of good things have come out about the hydroxy,” Trump said next. “You’d be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the frontline workers — before you catch it. The frontline workers — many, many are taking it,” he claimed. “I happen to be taking it,” he added. “And then we have this crazy whistleblower, this fake whistleblower, get out and try and, you know, knock it,” he said a short time later.
“I was just waiting to see your eyes light up when I said this,” Trump told reporters moments after saying he was taking hydroxychloroquine – as ever, speaking the quiet part out loud. By saying this, Trump seemed to admit that part of his motivation was to toss out another shiny object for reporters to chase — a way of distracting attention from the United States passing the grim milestone of at least 90,000 Covid-19 deaths. As I reported earlier this month, tens of thousands of those Americans would still be alive had Trump’s government been even half as successful at managing the crisis as Angela Merkel’s in Germany.
Trump also explained that he was inspired to take the drug by “a very well-crafted letter by a man who’s a respected doctor up in Westchester, maybe a little beyond Westchester… a little up higher and, in New York.” That appeared to be a reference to Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, a pro-Trump physician in Kiryas Joel, a town of 35,000 Hasidic Jews that is on across the Hudson River from Westchester. Zelenko’s claims for the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, in combination with azithromycin and zinc sulfate, against Covid-19 were relentlessly promoted by Trump allies like Sean Hannity and Rudy Giuliani.
An analysis by Media Matters for America last month suggested that repeated claims on Fox News programs that hydroxychloroquine was a miracle cure for Covid-19 might have implanted that belief in Trump’s mind.
The network has since responded to research that suggests the drug is both ineffective against the coronavirus and potentially dangerous when used without proper medical supervision by claiming, like Trump, that Democrats are using the issue to attack the president.
“I think we are making a little too big deal out of this, like we always do when it comes to hydroxychloroquine,” the Fox News pundit Jesse Watters said on Monday evening. “I don’t understand why it’s been politicized like it has.”
Better clinical data on the efficacy of the drug could be available later this year. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is directed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, announced last week that it had started a clinical trial, with 2,000 patients, “to evaluate whether the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, given together with the antibiotic azithromycin, can prevent hospitalization and death” from Covid-19.” The research is expected to conclude in October, although the study completion date is next March, more than a month after the presidential inauguration.
“Although there is anecdotal evidence that hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin may benefit people with COVID-19,” Fauci said in a news release announcing the study, “we need solid data from a large randomized, controlled clinical trial to determine whether this experimental treatment is safe and can improve clinical outcomes.”
In the meantime, there is also anecdotal that promotion of the drug as a Covid-19 cure by the cable news network and the president who is its biggest fan has convinced some die-hard Trump supporters to embrace it. At a protest on Long Island last week, a Trump supporter calling for an immediate end to the state’s public health orders told a reporter that he did not need to maintain social distance from anyone because, “I got hydroxychloroquine; I’ll be fine, bro.”
Updated: Tuesday, May 19, 11:30 a.m. PDT
This article was updated to add new comments on Tuesday from the president of the United States, who repeated his bizarre claim that one scientific study that contradicted with his belief that hydroxychloroquine wards off Covid-19 was “a Trump enemy statement.”