Medical staff shows on February 26, 2020 at the IHU Mediterranee Infection Institute in Marseille, … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
When President Trump incorrectly announced that the FDA had fast-tracked approval of the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19, he added, “The nice part is, it’s been around for a long time, so we know that if it—if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.”
Except it just did.
A man in Arizona has died and his wife is in critical condition after drinking a small amount of chloroquine phosphate in hopes of preventing a coronavirus infection. Instead of the drug form of chloroquine phosphate, the couple ingested a chemical used to treat parasites in fish.
“We were afraid of getting sick,” she told NBC News. The woman, age 61, and her husband, 68, were healthy and had no underlying conditions, but they were worried about catching the virus. She had recognized the name “chloroquine” when she heard Trump say it because she had used it to treat her Koi fish.
They each mixed 1 teaspoon of chloroquine phosphate with soda. Within 20 minutes, the woman began vomiting and her husband had trouble breathing. The woman called paramedics, and the couple were admitted to a Banner Health hospital.
The couple, in their 60s, are not the first to accidentally poison themselves after hearing Trump’s statements. Just a day after Trump’s press conference, Nigeria reported multiple poisonings from people who attempted to treat themselves and overdosed on chloroquine.
At the time of Trump’s announcement, FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn emphasized: “We may have the right drug, but it might not be in the appropriate dosage form right now, and it might do more harm than good.”
Unfortunately, that message was overshadowed by Trump’s dangerous misinformation.
When NBC News reporter Vaughn Hillyard asked the woman what she wanted others to know, she said, “Oh my God. Don’t take anything. Don’t believe anything. Don’t believe anything that the President says and his people because they don’t know what they’re talking about. And don’t take anything—be so careful and call your doctor. This is a heartache I’ll never get over.”
It’s true that clinical trials have begun for using chloroquine, one of the world’s oldest anti-malaria drugs, and hydroxychloroquine, a less toxic derivative of chloroquine that treats lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, to treat the disease caused by the coronavirus. But the FDA can’t approve a drug, much less fast-track it, without solid evidence of safety and effectiveness, and it hasn’t approved either of these drugs for COVID-19 treatment.
As Forbes contributor Mary Beth Pfeiffer has written, hydroxychloroquine has appeared to help some patients with COVID-19, but doctors remain cautious because the evidence for the drug’s effectiveness is shaky, based initially on a single in vitro study and then a very small, unpublished trial in France.
Neither drug is harmless. Side effects of chloroquine can include vision problems, for example, and hydroxychloroquine, known by the brand name Plaquenil, carries a risk of fatal arrhythmia, where the heart beat becomes so irregular that the patient goes into cardiac arrest. Multiple doctors and pharmacists took to Twitter to warn the public of potentially dangerous effects of taking these drugs, especially with azithromycin, a combination which can also lead in rare cases to sudden death.
Trump’s inaccurate remarks are hurting more than those attempting to self-medicate. As ProPublica reported, many patients with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis who rely on Plaquenil as a regular medication are now running out and cannot get refills. Pharmacist Katherine Rowland reported on Twitter that a dentist tried to call in a prescription for hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for himself, his wife and another couple, a practice that’s led Ohio to pass an emergency rule to meet strict requirement before filling dispensing those drugs.