WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday admitted that his enthusiasm for an antimalarial drug unproven as a coronavirus treatment was based largely on gut instinct, after an open disagreement with the nation’s top infectious disease expert at a White House press briefing.
When reporters asked Tony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whether the drug hydroxychloroquine was effective at preventing coronavirus, he said simply: “The answer is no.”
But when Trump came back to the microphone, he told reporters that “we ought to give it a try.”
“I think we disagree a little bit,” Trump added. “I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know, smart guy. I feel good about it.”
The drug, long used to treat malaria and diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, has shown limited efficacy at treating coronavirus, and has not yet been fully tested either as a treatment or preventive medicine in a formal trial. Trump, nonetheless, said the White House had ordered millions of doses — perhaps a reference to Bayer’s recent announcement that it would donate three million tablets of the drug to the American government.
Fauci — a renowned infectious disease researcher who has served as NIAID director since 1984 — acknowledged the drug was unlikely to cause harmful side effects when used in an effort to treat or prevent coronavirus. Some anecdotal evidence has shown the drug may be effective at reducing the severity of coronavirus symptoms, but experts have stressed that researchers should conduct larger trials before making any determinations about rolling out chloroquine for more widespread use.
“What I’m saying is that it might be effective,” Fauci said. But medical professionals’ aim, he said, should focus on “collecting data that will ultimately show that it is truly effective and safe under the conditions of Covid-19.”
Trump’s comments are a startling departure from the norm for scientists and officials at agencies across the federal government, including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, which follow strict legal and ethical standards for approving new medicines and approving existing ones to treat new diseases.
The remarks also come the day after a press conference during which Trump dramatically oversold a separate drug that could potentially be used to treat coronavirus. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, repeatedly walked back Trump’s statements, stressing that the agency was following its typical protocols for ensuring the safety of existing drugs and approving new ones.
When a reporter asked Trump on Friday whether he was selling Americans on an overly optimistic message regarding forthcoming coronavirus treatments, Trump told him: “I say you’re a terrible reporter.”
Throughout the briefing, Fauci attempted to balance his scientific approach with Trump’s self-acknowledged instincts on the use of antimalarial drugs to treat a novel virus and the respiratory disease it causes, known as Covid-19.
“It’s the hope that it will work, versus proving that it will work,” Fauci said. “So I don’t see big differences here.”