He advised Joe Biden’s initiative to transform the fight against cancer. He interviewed Bill Clinton at last fall’s “Time 100” gala. And he’s treated patients with names so famous they don’t need titles: Steve Jobs, Lance Armstrong, Sumner Redstone, and Ted Kennedy.
Now, David Agus — an accomplished Los Angeles cancer doctor, researcher, author, and TV pundit — has been swept up in the swirl of the Trump White House as it confronts the Covid-19 pandemic.
Agus’s work is neither glitzy nor overtly controversial, but he’s found himself in the harsh glare of the spotlight in an era in which old malaria drugs and epidemiological curves have taken on a distinctly partisan bent.
Agus, once an unknown quantity on Capitol Hill, has recently come onto the radar in Washington circles for several reasons: He’s been informally advising the Trump administration behind the scenes on how to best collect data on Covid-19 treatments, with a focus on a database recently gifted to the government by the tech company Oracle.
His optimistic comments as a talking head on television have also led some people to believe — inaccurately, he insists — that he’s an evangelist for hydroxychloroquine, the medication that President Trump touted despite a lack of evidence that it’s effective against Covid-19.
And even as Agus has been counseling federal officials, he hasn’t escaped the administration’s ire. Earlier this month, the White House publicly paraded a clip of one of his TV appearances in a video as an example of how “the media” has downplayed the risk of the coronavirus — unleashing a storm of online vitriol. Agus has found that sort of attention unnerving.
“I’m not used to people saying negative things and getting aggressive with me. That’s never happened, as a cancer doctor. I’ve never been partisan, and I’m very, very conscious not to be partisan,” Agus told STAT.
It only complicated matters that the New York Times passingly referred to him in a story last month as something of a Trump whisperer who had talked with the president about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and a related malaria drug. Agus insisted to STAT that he’s never spoken with Trump and has only met the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, socially.
“People said: ‘Oh my gosh, he just mentioned hydroxychloroquine — therefore he’s for the president,’” Agus said. ”And all of a sudden they assume that it’s partisan. And this drug — and treatment of patients — is nonpartisan. I don’t care which administration I work with at all. I just want to work with administrations to get things done.”
Friends of Agus suggested he’s been unfairly dragged into the spotlight at a fraught political moment.
“It’s easy to get swept up in stuff in Washington — you don’t even know it happens sometimes,” said Anna Barker, a former deputy director of the National Cancer Institute who now works with Agus at the University of Southern California. “I’m sure he’s probably going to be misquoted a lot and misunderstood. I mean, that happens to public figures all the time.“
They insist, too, that while opinionated, Agus has stayed staunchly apolitical.
“Usually when David talks politics with me, he shakes his head and says, ‘I just don’t understand anything about Washington,’” said Greg Simon, the former president of the Biden Cancer Initiative and a past adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, who has counted Agus as a friend for nearly two decades. “I have political junkie friends and he’s not one of them.”
Agus, after all, has a day job treating advanced cancer patients, overseeing lab research, and leading a USC cancer institute funded by Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. Plainspoken and energetic, the 55-year-old Agus wears an omnipresent uniform — a black V-neck sweater over a white dress shirt — recommended personally by Jobs, who famously wore a black turtleneck every day.
For his part, Agus insisted that his role advising the government is being overblown. Far from media-shy under normal circumstances, Agus said he felt uncomfortable being interviewed by STAT about his role in the pandemic response. “I don’t like the focus being on me,” he said, “because the focus should be on what we’re doing, the disease.”
He added: “At this time in the country, I don’t think any focus should be on anything else except that.”
Agus, for his deference, is no stranger to the public eye. He has contributed medical coverage to CBS News since 2013. But those appearances have taken on a heightened sense of importance as the coronavirus has snowballed into a global crisis.
Agus has used that platform to echo some of the widespread — and widely criticized — excitement about hydroxychloroquine.
“If somebody has Covid-19 now, I want them to talk to their doctor about the potential role of using hydroxychloroquine today,” Agus declared on “CBS Evening News” in mid-March. He called the drug “hope personified to every person with the disease.”
He, like other experts who drummed up interest in the drug early in the pandemic, has since added a dash of skepticism to his talking points. In an appearance on “CBS This Morning” earlier this month, Agus acknowledged that it’s still unknown whether hydroxychloroquine can treat Covid-19, and that studies to assess that question have been neither well-done nor definitive. Still, he told the camera, “it certainly in the right cases makes sense to take that risk, and use these drugs. We’re at war now, and sometimes we don’t have all the evidence we need.”
Still, Agus insists that he isn’t an evangelist for hydroxychloroquine.
“I’m a supporter of trying to use data to find out better ways to treat this disease.”
“There’s this notion out there that I’m a supporter of hydroxychloroquine, and it’s just not accurate or true,” he told STAT. “I’m a supporter of trying to use data to find out better ways to treat this disease.”
The comments were all the more striking coming from a doctor who has developed a reputation for being a stickler about proving treatments work — and is willing to go to bat for the approaches he thinks are best.
“David is very, very well-read and well-versed, and doesn’t shy away from arguing with people if he thinks they’re wrong,” Simon said.
Agus’s comments on hydroxychloroquine, even as he has tried to emphasize nuance, have catapulted him into one of the fiercest political flashpoints of the coronavirus pandemic.
The use of the drug has become a rallying point among Trump’s conservative supporters, but its promotion has been chided by medical experts — including those at the FDA, which recently warned against using hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 patients outside of the hospital or a clinical trial, citing the risk that the drug could cause abnormal heart rhythms.
Still, positive stories about the unproven drug have flooded conservative outlets like Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, One America News Network, and Fox News, many of which have maligned the so-called mainstream media for reporting on its unproven effectiveness and potential side effects.
Some conservative commentators have insisted that the mainstream media’s reporting on the drug’s downsides is motivated by malice toward Trump, who has personally championed the treatment.
Agus said that cherry-picking his comments on one particular drug obscures the real thing he’s advocating for: acting swiftly and aggressively to find any therapy that’s safe and effective for a novel, deadly disease with no proven treatment or cure. He notes that he has also advocated for exploring other drugs being evaluated for Covid-19, such as Kaletra and remdesivir. He’s disheartened, he said, that the nonpartisan goal of saving lives has become politicized.
That politicization has also put Agus in the White House’s line of fire, in the form of a sharply partisan video aimed at attacking the media.
Like many pundits and experts, Agus didn’t see the coronavirus becoming a full-blown crisis in the U.S. On Feb. 8, Agus declared in a CBS appearance that “the coronavirus is not going to cause a major issue in the United States.”
At a closely watched press briefing on April 13, the White House and President Trump highlighted that clip in a video montage headlined “The Media Minimized the Risk From the Start.” Immediately after the footage of Agus aired, his phone blew up with text messages. Most were supportive and sympathetic. His Twitter account, however, was flooded with vitriol.
In a series of tweets later that day, Agus said he was operating, at the time of the clip, under what he’d been told about the country’s seemingly robust infrastructure to test and quarantine people with the virus. He also expressed regret. “I was wrong to accept this as fact, and have learned to question not trust,” he wrote.
While his television appearances have kept Agus in the spotlight, he has also been working quietly behind the scenes on a highly technical project with Oracle and the federal government.
That, too, has generated outsized controversy.
Agus has been closely involved in Oracle’s effort to build a database that would allow U.S. clinicians to upload data on how their Covid-19 patients are responding to experimental treatments. In theory, it’s far from a controversial idea. But the Oracle project again dragged Agus into the fray over controversial treatments, thanks in part to the story in the New York Times that suggested — erroneously, according to Agus — that the Oracle database would be used to boost hydroxychloroquine.
Agus recently took on an unpaid consultant role with Oracle to assist with the development and rollout of the software, which Oracle recently gifted to the federal government. The database is now up and running.
That means he’s been in communication, sometimes as often as multiple times a day, with officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and from agencies including the FDA, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By and large, Agus has talked with officials about the Oracle database. But his Zoom meetings, phone calls, and emails with agency staffers have also waded into broader discussions about how to collect data outside of clinical trials to drive better decision-making during the pandemic, Agus said. Agus said he has “never spoken with [the administration] on an individual drug — just on collecting data on all outcomes and treatments.”
For a largely technical project, the Oracle effort has stirred a fair amount of palace intrigue — though that isn’t altogether surprising, given its backer.
Larry Ellison, the tech billionaire and co-founder of Oracle, has been steering the database, known as the Therapeutic Learning System. Ellison — who doesn’t have a medical background, but has become one of the nation’s leading funders of cancer research — is among the circle of elites that have had a role in shaping the Trump administration’s coronavirus strategy.
Agus met Ellison in the same way he has met many high-profile acquaintances: through a cancer diagnosis. Agus treated one of Ellison’s relatives in 2006. The two became close friends and co-founded Sensei, a wellness company that built a hydroponic farm and resort on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, which Ellison owns. They also co-founded Project Ronin, a software company aimed at transforming cancer care.
While Agus has played down his comments on hydroxychloroquine, there remains speculation about what role, if any, Ellison has played in shaping Trump’s support of the drug. Ellison has not publicly touted the drug, but the New York Times credits him with bringing the controversial treatment to Trump’s attention. And NBC News has reported that the Ellison conversation played a role in the ousting of Rick Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
Neither the White House nor Oracle responded to requests for comment for this article.
Over his two decades in Hollywood’s backyard, Agus has built a roster of famous patients and friends.
A 2013 profile of Agus in Wired magazine featured testimonials from will.i.am, Neil Young, and Marc Benioff. He’s advised Sean Parker and counts Ashton Kutcher as a friend. Steve Jobs, famous for his eye for design, convinced Agus to change the title of a forthcoming book originally called “What Is Health?” to the more stylish “The End of Illness.”
Agus also has deep ties to some of Washington’s biggest power brokers. He sat on the board of former Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer initiative, which has since disbanded in response to Biden’s run for president.
Agus’s website even quotes former Vice President Al Gore, who called him “one of America’s great doctors and medical researchers.” (The two have known each other since shortly after Gore left office in 2001, when they were introduced by the financier Richard Hollander.)
But beyond the Hollywood and Washington glitz, Agus is also an accomplished and respected research scientist and clinician.
Agus did his medical training at elite East Coast institutions — the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, the National Institutes of Health, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — before moving west to Los Angeles in 2000. Agus trained as an immunologist and did most of his early-career research in the field.
Agus stands apart from many other physicians because of the expansive way he thinks about health and medicine: in big, broad terms and as a complex system, said Danny Hillis, the computing pioneer who co-founded a cancer diagnostics company with Agus.
Over the years, Agus has built out a translational research group at USC that is dedicated to exploring the use of engineering, math, and artificial intelligence to better understand and manage cancer.
He’s also authored a series of books aimed at a popular audience. One book prescribes 65 rules for better health, ranging from the playful (Rule 59: Don’t wear stilettos) to the sensible (Rule 57: Avoid sunburns). Others lay out his thoughts on statins (he’s a fan) and vitamins (he thinks vitamin D supplements are “a waste of money”).
Despite his celebrity status on the West Coast, Agus has kept a strikingly low profile in Washington. Even multiple lobbyists for Oracle told STAT they had no idea what role Agus was playing in Oracle’s coronavirus response.
And unlike Ellison, who is widely known for his large political donations mainly to Republicans, Agus hasn’t given to a political candidate since 2003, when he gave $500 to Independent Joe Lieberman.
But as the pandemic has infused politics into Agus’ work, it has also thrown a wrench into his routinely packed calendar of appointments with scientists, clinicians, patients, and, sometimes, those famous friends.
These days, Agus’ lab is quiet. He only goes into the clinic to see patients getting chemotherapy or another active treatment. He’s doing the rest of his visits via telemedicine, which he laments is “not the same” as an in-person visit.
“There’s something to looking a patient in the eye, looking at their body cues, how they walk, and how they hold themselves — you miss that from telemedicine. I know my care isn’t as good through telemedicine as it is in person,” Agus said.
At home, where he’s doing most of his work these days, Agus’ college-aged son rigged him a makeshift television studio. Agus is often up at 2 a.m. Los Angeles time to make CBS’ morning show. He chats in front of a stately backdrop of shelves of antique books and a few samurai swords — decor that scored Agus an 8 out of 10 by a pandemic-inspired Twitter account devoted to rating the home offices of television pundits.
The Covid-19 era has been at once disorienting and nonstop for Agus. “This whole Covid thing has changed my perception of time so dramatically,” he said. “If you told me something happened yesterday, I could think it happened two weeks ago.”
He added: “It’s one of the busiest times in my life. I’ve never worked harder.”