WASHINGTON — In North Carolina last week, President Trump told voters at a campaign rally not to fear Covid-19 because they’d soon have access to a coronavirus “cure.” The experimental treatment, he told supporters the next day in Iowa, made him feel “like Superman.” In Florida, he told seniors they’d soon have access, for free, to the antibody therapy he’d received during his own bout with the virus two weeks before.
It’s a significant shift. Trump campaigned for months on the dubious pledge that a vaccine would be available “before a very special date,” an open nod to Election Day. But as it’s become clear drug companies won’t help Trump deliver on a key campaign promise by Nov. 3, he’s largely dropped the aggressive vaccine rhetoric. Instead, he’s begun to campaign on equally lofty boasts of a Covid-19 cure-all — even though the treatments remain unproven and unavailable to the general public.
“We have to get ‘em approved, and I want to get ‘em to the hospitals where people are feeling badly,” Trump said in a recent video. “That’s much more important to me than the vaccine.”
Trump’s pivot to touting therapeutics underscores his desperation to claim that his government is making significant progress in combating the pandemic. And it is an attempt, too, to turn his own Covid-19 diagnosis from a weakness into a strength, bolstering the dangerous arguments that Americans shouldn’t fear the virus or let it “dominate” their lives.
“Clearly, there’s been a shift in what the President talks about,” said Walid Gellad, a physician and health policy professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “That may just be a factor of the personal experience, although clearly it’s also related to the reality of the vaccine. I don’t know which of those it is.”
Trump’s latest comments have stoked additional fear among public health experts and scientists that Americans will take the president’s advice and largely ignore the pandemic unfolding around them. Even as Trump campaigns regularly in front of thousands of mostly unmasked supporters, case rates are spiking across the country. Over 700 Americans still die of Covid-19 each day.
Even amid the spikes, Trump has argued that Americans should return to business as usual, given the existence of the experimental therapies.
Public health experts are still urging people to continue to follow social distancing guidelines and to wear masks in public. With the weather growing colder, Americans spending more time indoors, and the holiday travel season approaching, experts including Tony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease researcher, warn that failure to adhere to basic public health guidelines could have deadly consequences. …
Trump has fixated particular on a treatment he’s referred to as “Regeneron” — in fact, an as-yet-unnamed cocktail of antibodies being developed by Regeneron, a New York drug manufacturer. Trump’s effusiveness even led the Lincoln Project, a coalition of Republicans opposed to his re-election bid, to publish a fake commercial mocking Trump for hawking an unproven cure.
“You’ve got to open up your businesses, open up your schools,” Trump said at a campaign rally in North Carolina on Thursday. “We have incredible therapeutics, we have incredible drugs, we have, in my opinion, a cure. Because I took something, Regeneron, it was highly sophisticated stuff. The antibodies, and Eli Lilly makes an incredible drug.”
It’s unclear whether Americans are taking his words to heart. Trump’s message, however, is clearly out of step with reality, given skyrocketing case rates and a corresponding increase in Covid-19 hospitalizations.
“I have not seen any polling on whether this latest fusillade of claims regarding that great drug ‘Regeneron’ has convinced anyone that there are cures out there, period, let alone readily available ones for the population,” said Peter Bach, a doctor and health policy researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “I can’t remember how many times the boy had to cry wolf before he was ignored, but I am sure the president has exceeded that number by now, probably by severalfold.”
Trump’s tone regarding new Covid-19 therapies has exceeded even his prior effusiveness regarding vaccines: Since his release, Trump has attempted to convince Americans they’ll soon have access to the same level of treatment he received at Walter Reed.
“We have Regeneron, we have a very similar drug from Eli Lilly, and they’re coming out, and we’re trying to get them on an emergency basis,” Trump said in a video posted to Twitter on Oct. 7, in which he said contracting coronavirus may have been a blessing from God. “We’ve authorized it, I’ve authorized it, and if you’re in the hospital and you’re feeling really bad, I think we’re going to work it so that you get ‘em, and you’re going to get ‘em free.”
The promises ignore key context: The president is among a small handful of people around the world who’ve received access to the Regeneron antibody therapy outside the setting of a clinical trial. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet issued an emergency use authorization for either therapy — in fact, one trial testing Eli Lilly’s antibody treatment for hospitalized patients was recently paused following a potential safety concern.
As with other once-touted Covid-19 treatments, however, Gellad said the president’s enthusiasm could do more harm than good, especially when it comes to the public’s perception of the FDA. Trump has already telegraphed that his administration will soon issue emergency authorizations for both the Regeneron and Eli Lilly antibody therapies. If the FDA does so, it might appear that Trump’s rhetoric influenced the decision — even if the agency’s scientists didn’t factor in the president’s eagerness. The scenario has already played out twice in 2020, Gellad said: First over the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and again over the use of blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients.
“The perception, and the reality, is that there’s a lot of political interference, whether it’s addressing hydroxychloroquine, plasma, antibodies, or vaccines,” Gellad said. “In reality, all of these drugs might fit the criteria for what FDA would have done probably anyway.”