President Donald Trump’s media and partisan critics were quick to pile on when the President suggested at a press conference last Thursday that an inexpensive and widely available drug – first approved for the treatment of Malaria and some forms of arthritis in 1949 – might prove useful in treating those infected by the Coronavirus or, as we are now supposed to call it, Covid-19. In doing so they were quick to point out that his own experts, Dr. Anthony Fauci and FDA Commissioner Stephan Hahn seemed to disagree with him.
But did they? When asked by a Fox News reporter if the drug, chloroquine, could prevent one from infection, Fauci responded bluntly. “The answer is no,“ he said, “And the evidence … is anecdotal evidence, so as the commissioner of FDA and the President mentioned yesterday, we’re trying to strike a balance between making something with a potential of an effect to the American people available, at the same time we do it under the auspices of a protocol that would give us information to determine if it’s truly safe and truly effective, but the information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal; it was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can’t make any.”
The media and Trump’s critics, excited by the possibility they could claim the President wrongly cited Fauci. But the President never claimed either 1) that he could be sure the drug would work and 2) certainly didn’t claim it would work as a vaccine. What he did say was that other nations are prescribing it for those who have contracted the virus because it seems to shorten their hospital stays and ameliorate the worst symptoms. If that’s true, making it widely available could potentially lessen the expected over-crowding of existing medical facilities, keep some who contract the virus out of the hospital and hasten their recovery. That would be, as the President suggested, “very good news.”
But the New York Times, among others, used Fauci’s comments to attack Trump in a series of news reports. One headline “Trump’s Embrace of Unproven Drugs to Treat Coronavirus Defies Science.” This in spite of the fact that numerous countries that are dispensing the drug now are reporting precisely the reports that the president referred to in his remarks. Those countries include China, Australia, Norway, Britain, South Korea and Belgium.
What Fauci and Hahn were saying was that this country insists on long and expensive testing before any drug is made available to the public or allowed to be prescribed for what are known as “off label” uses. Thus, while other countries can move forward with a promising treatment that has been proven safe for other uses, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – while promising to speed things up or, as the President is demanding, “cut the red tape,” – may well continue to insist on extensive testing and new trials before approving its use to alleviate the suffering of infected American. Typically such tests cost millions and can take months or years to complete which is why treatment for other conditions available elsewhere are often denied to Americans.
Sometimes these requirements make sense … and sometimes they do not. This is one of those times. If the pandemic is a global pandemic then Americans should have access to the same treatment available elsewhere … The New York Times and the Food and Drug Administration’s bureaucrats notwithstanding.