But also pretty high on that list — and rising — for a small but passionate number of people is something else they claim President Donald Trump was right about all along: hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment.
“There was a study that came out that said that hydroxychloroquine actually helped people survive,” Fox News’s Steve Doocy said Monday morning. “And, of course, that was one of the things that Donald Trump came out and said, ‘I’ve heard good things about it.’ Next thing you know, [Anthony S.] Fauci was standing right over, blows him up, and the left wing applauds.”
Fox’s Maria Bartiromo made a similar case Sunday, bemoaning the idea that “hydroxychloroquine was met with attacks and takedowns by political operatives and some media.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was recently suspended from YouTube for a week for posting a video touting hydroxychloroquine and another drug that’s unproven for fighting covid-19, ivermectin, as treatments, told Bartiromo, “The truth has been hiding in plain sight since the beginning of the pandemic.”
And Trump himself recently released a list of things “they are now admitting I was right about” that included, with no qualification, “Hydroxychloroquine works.”
The reality, as with many of Trump’s such claims and even his momentary advocacy for the lab-leak theory last year, is far less cut and dried. The new claims rest on a preliminary study from an early advocate for hydroxychloroquine that has been criticized by other experts and doesn’t exactly say what its proponents suggest.
The study was released a few weeks ago by infectious-disease researchers in New Jersey. The researchers studied 255 patients at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., during the early months of the pandemic. They conclude that a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin at certain levels translates to “a survival rate 2.9 times the other patients.”
The study though, crucially, is a preliminary one, which means it has not undergone a rigorous peer-review process. It’s also an observational study, which means we’re not comparing the same treatments given to one group to another receiving a placebo. The gold standard for such studies is a randomized, double-blind study in which neither the patients nor doctors know who is getting the treatment vs. the placebo.
That’s really the crucial point. The 2.9 times higher survival rate is not compared to those who didn’t receive the treatment; it’s compared to those who received less of the treatment.
And as critics of the study have noted, there are other very valid reasons those who received less of the treatment might have had worse outcomes, including the severity of their cases.
“It’s likely that patients who died rapidly received less total (of the two drugs) because they were dead; one can’t conclude from these data that they died because they got fewer doses,” Neil Schluger, chairman of New York Medical College’s Department of Medicine, told PolitiFact. “It’s also likely that, if they received lower doses on a daily basis, it’s because they were sicker to begin with.”
Penny Ward, a professor of pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London, echoed that point, according to the U.K. fact-checking website Full Fact.
“This analysis is flawed, as longer survival is likely to be associated with greater cumulative doses of any treatments given,” Ward said, “and in addition there is a major imbalance between the numbers of individuals in each group compared.”
As Ward and others noted, the study also deals with a very small sample size. Among the 255 patients, just 37 received the combination of the highest doses of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, with 18 surviving — the group at the heart of the “2.9 times” claim.
What’s more, the study focuses on a limited number of very ill patients — those requiring invasive ventilation — while saying, “These data do not yet apply to hospitalized patients” that didn’t require such treatment. In other words, it says nothing about how the treatment might work for the vast majority of those who contract the coronavirus.
Is it possible we’ll one day finally get those long-sought data that hydroxychloroquine might have some benefit in some specific circumstances? Anything is possible. But unlike the lab-leak theory, which has largely been about guesswork, we have lots and lots of data on this drug over many months, showing little to no effectiveness in treatment or prevention of the coronavirus. Even just last week, a new study in Canada found there was “no evidence that hydroxychloroquine reduced symptom duration or prevented severe outcomes.”
The last key point is where the study comes from. Stephen M. Smith was a frequent presence on Fox News pressing for hydroxychloroquine in the spring of 2020 — around the time the Food and Drug Administration briefly approved it for emergency use under pressure from Trump, before reversing course by citing its lack of efficacy. Smith at one point also presented his data to Trump.
In one of Smith’s many appearances on Fox, he and host Laura Ingraham chewed over the data, with Smith citing calculations made by his sons when it came to the benefits of the drug. When Ingraham began to bring the interview to an end, Smith cut in to offer one final point: a prediction.
“Laura, I think this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” Smith said in the April 2020 interview. “I’m very serious.”