WASHINGTON — Five months ahead of the general election, Democrats are escalating their attacks against Republicans over the use of a malaria drug to treat Covid-19, dragging a highly polarized medical debate even further into the political realm.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in recent weeks has vocally criticized two GOP incumbents and two challengers for echoing President Trump’s enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine in March and April. Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive Democratic challenger, has seized on the president’s remarks, calling his hydroxychloroquine advocacy “totally irresponsible” after the president announced he was taking the drug as a preventive measure.
For his part, Trump has dismissed concerns about a growing body of evidence that the drug is not an effective Covid-19 treatment, and concerns about potential side effects, as politically motivated.
“If you look at the one survey, the only bad survey, they were giving it to people that were in very bad shape, they were very old, almost dead. It was a Trump enemy statement,” Trump said of one study.
The debate has effectively served as a dividing line in U.S. politics: In large part, Trump’s supporters and sympathetic media outlets echoed the president’s enthusiasm, while Democrats, with some notable exceptions, generally sided with scientists who insisted there was no reliable science indicating hydroxychloroquine could help treat Covid-19.
Robyn Patterson, a DCCC spokeswoman, said the group’s messaging aimed to highlight Republicans pushing hydroxychloroquine “like hotcakes” even as other governments have banned its use for Covid-19.
“It’s reckless and irresponsible for Washington Republicans and their candidates to promote a potentially lethal and scientifically-discredited cure because they think it will improve their lot in the President’s eyes,” she said.
Since Trump first began touting hydroxychloroquine, the debate has turned its attention from promising anecdotes from individual patients and doctors to a growing body of scientific research that shows the drug is not effective. In late April, the Food and Drug Administration, led by a commissioner Trump appointed, warned against using hydroxychloroquine outside of a hospital or clinical trial setting. The French government and several others have since banned use of the drug to treat Covid-19.
On the campaign trail, Democrats’ ire has focused in particular on Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the former Iowa director of public health, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack. Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist, initially tweeted her support for hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment, but later deleted the post.
She similarly tweeted, then deleted, a call for “herd immunity” — a controversial strategy that would effectively require most Americans to become sick, likely resulting in hundreds of thousands of additional Covid-19 deaths.
In a statement, the DCCC said Miller-Meeks had promoted “dangerous, unproven theories that put Iowans’ lives at risk.”
And in New Jersey, Democrats have attacked Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who switched his party affiliation to Republican after Trump’s impeachment in December, for promoting hydroxychloroquine based on “anecdotal evidence.” They’ve also blasted his decision to accept a single, $500 contribution from Joe Pizza, an executive for a company that sells hydroxychloroquine sulfate.
Chris Pack, a spokesman for House Republicans’ campaign arm, did not respond to an initial request for comment, and eventually declined to respond beyond accusing STAT of “peddling Democrat talking points.”
The swing-district controversies highlight the dangers of politicians giving voters unsolicited medical advice — and following Trump’s largely unscientific medical recommendations, said Bob Blendon, a Harvard health policy professor.
“My recommendation has been, all the way down the line, that politicians should not play physician,” he said. “It’s very dangerous for politicians to go where the president did here.”
Biden, Trump’s presumptive Democratic challenger, has similarly seized on Trump’s remarks, calling his hydroxychloroquine advocacy “totally irresponsible” after the president announced he was taking the drug as a preventive measure.
Democrats have also used the hydroxychloroquine controversy as a chance to attack Republicans for accepting campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, which faces record-low popularity after years of attacks from politicians in both parties over high drug prices.
In Arizona, Democrats criticized GOP Rep. David Schweikert for accepting a $1,000 check from Novartis, a company that manufactures hydroxychloroquine and whose CEO called the drug the “biggest hope” for Covid-19 treatment in late March. The company’s generics division donated 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine sulfate to the Strategic National Stockpile on March 29.
Patterson, the DCCC spokeswoman, told STAT the campaign group also plans to air new attacks on Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican who is challenging Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.).
The efficacy of hydroxychloroquine is not a fully partisan issue. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has been widely praised for his Covid-19 response despite the 30,000 deaths in his state, said in early April there was “anecdotal” reason to be excited about hydroxychloroquine, and worked with the federal government to ship large quantities of the drug there.
Yet in the broader battle over hydroxychloroquine, American voters appear to favor scientists over Trump and other political figures by a wide margin. Just 23% of voters said they supported the use of hydroxychloroquine, a number that has dipped from 29% last month.
And while Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease researcher, has been notably cautious in pushing back on Trump’s misleading guidance, he argued last week that the debate was effectively over, telling CNN: “The scientific data is really quite evident now about the lack of efficacy.”
But it’s not clear whether voters will penalize politicians for picking the other side. Whit Ayres, the president of the GOP-aligned polling firm North Star Opinion Research, cautioned that hydroxychloroquine might be “but a distant memory” come Election Day.
“The broader issue about politicians not playing doctor, I’m sure, is widely accepted by voters of both parties already,” Ayres said. “So it would have to be a pretty vivid and memorable case of a politician trying to prescribe drugs or tell people what drug to take. I don’t think you’re going to find many examples of that.”