“Could be a game changer.” “Very exciting.” “The way they acted with this kind of speed is an incredible thing.” “Very powerful.” “This could be a tremendous breakthrough. Tremendous breakthrough.” “We’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.” “There’s tremendous promise.”
That’s President Donald Trump, inflating expectations about an end game to the coronavirus crisis with his positive spin on a disease that is spreading with no federally approved drug treatments, no preventive medicine, no cure and not enough equipment to help everyone sick from it.
Trump commanded the daily coronavirus task force briefings at the White House this past week, fashioning himself as a wartime president and making a variety of statements about the pandemic that were problematic or just wrong.
The public health officials who were with him walked back some of those statements. Most strikingly, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke forcefully to dampen expectations that a drug to treat COVID-19 was at hand, as the president had repeatedly suggested.
A review of some of the rhetoric:
TRUMP: “We’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately, and that’s where the FDA has been so great. They — they’ve gone through the approval process. It’s been approved.” — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: It’s not true that a new drug has been approved and is about ready to ship out.
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The drug in question, known chemically as chloroquine, has been available for decades to treat the mosquito-borne illness malaria. Technically, doctors can already prescribe the drug to patients with COVID-19, a practice known as off-label prescribing. But Trump falsely suggested that the FDA had just cleared the drug specifically for the viral pandemic. That would mean that the drug had met the FDA’s standards for safety and effectiveness.
Minutes later, the FDA commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, emphasized that the drug still needs testing to determine whether it can help patients. He said chloroquine would have to be tested in “a large pragmatic clinical trial to actually gather that information.”
Drug trials typically require hundreds or thousands of patients and, even when accelerated, take weeks or months to complete. In his remarks, Hahn warned against giving patients “false hope” before drugs are fully vetted.
While chloroquine has shown promise in preliminary laboratory studies, some experts are skeptical it will prove effective in human testing.
“I think it could be a game changer, and maybe not,” Trump said, discussing the drug.
But the FDA reiterated in a statement hours after Trump’s remarks that there are “no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure or prevent COVID-19.”
TRUMP: “If chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine works, or any of the other things that they’re looking at that are not quite as far out ... your numbers are going to come down very rapidly.”
THE FACTS: The drugs he is referring to are for treatment in patients already infected. That doesn’t prevent spread of the virus. One study is testing chloroquine to try to protect health care workers at highest risk of infection, because a vaccine is probably a year or more away. It’s too early to invest great hope in that or other drugs.
TRUMP, on using the malaria drug for COVID-19: “There’s tremendous promise based on the results and other tests. There’s tremendous promise. — briefing Thursday.
THE FACTS: “No. The answer ... is no.” That was Fauci’s response when asked Friday whether there’s any evidence that the drug is useful for COVID-19.
He went on to say that hopes for the drug are based on “anecdotal” information. “It was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”
TRUMP: “Today, I’m also announcing that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing immediate relief to renters and homeowners by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April.” — news conference Wednesday.
THE FACTS: His assurance about renters is misleading, Most renters are not protected from being evicted if they cannot make their payments through April.
Under HUD’s plan for the pandemic, foreclosures and evictions would stop for 60 days on single-family homes with loans through the Federal Housing Administration. That would apply to roughly 8 million homes, according to HUD, and many of them are not rentals. Andrea Shapiro of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a New York-based housing advocacy organization, said the new protections only help a small number of people.