The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is not the only leader pushing unproven coronavirus remedies

President Trump speaks to the media after attending the Republican Senate luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington on May 19. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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For weeks, President Trump has been promoting hydroxychloroquine, an anti-parasite drug used to treat malaria and lupus, calling it a potential “game changer” in the fight against the coronavirus.

Then came the big reveal: Trump told reporters this week he has been taking the drug as a prophylactic, in hopes of avoiding the outbreak even as it continues its creep through the halls of power.

“All I can tell you is so far I seem to be okay,” he told reporters about his experience taking the medication, which can have deadly side effects and has not been federally approved for coronavirus prevention. Trump said he is also taking zinc.

As scientists race to develop a vaccine and confirmed cases climb past 5 million globally, Trump is among several world leaders who have endorsed unproven cures and preventatives for the virus.

Antimalarial drug touted by President Trump is linked to increased risk of death in coronavirus patients, study says

Public health officials have warned that praise for unverified remedies could spur people to put themselves in danger attempting to self-medicate or stop following crucial public health guidelines, such as social distancing and hand washing. Although the Food and Drug Administration recently authorized the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine in some hospitalized coronavirus patients, the agency also warned last month that the drug should not be used to treat patients for the virus outside of a hospital or clinical trial setting, let alone those who are not infected. Doctors have warned that the drug can cause severe side effects, including heart rhythm problems.

But from Belarus to Bolivia, such warnings haven’t seemed to stop the flow of unscientific advice on the part of top officials, amid mounting pressure to deliver solutions. Beyond Trump, here are some of the treatments leaders have extolled — and in some cases, have gone so far as to try themselves.


Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is aligned closely with Trump, has spent months downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus and pushing back against strict social distancing guidelines, in opposition to state governors and his own health officials. Brazil now has one of the highest confirmed case counts in the world, overtaking European hotspots Spain and Italy last weekend.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has taken a keen interest in hydroxychloroquine. The Brazilian government has distributed around 3 million pills over the course of the outbreak. This week, shortly after Trump’s announcement that he has been dosing himself, the Brazilian government said it would recommend doctors begin prescribing it after the detection of early symptoms.

Bolsonaro has lost two health ministers since the crisis began: The first he fired amid disagreements over how to handle the pandemic and the second stepped down last week. Both pushed back against his hydroxychloroquine plans.

Meanwhile, Trump is mulling a potential ban on travel to the United States from Brazil. “Brazil is having some trouble, no question about it,” he said this week. “I don’t want people coming in here and infecting our people.”


Go to the sauna. Drink vodka. Eat your meals on time.

This was Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s advice when the coronavirus began to spread. His country has confirmed more than 30,000 cases of the virus. But the strongman who’s ruled the former Soviet republic since the early 1990s has dismissed lockdowns as “frenzy and psychosis” and continues to take a relaxed attitude toward the pandemic.

The country’s soccer teams played on long after European teams canceled their games. Lukashenko himself kept playing in an amateur hockey league despite concerns close contact could spread the virus. (One of his teammates eventually tested positive.)

Lukashenko also claimed on national television that doctors had already found a combination of drugs to cure the virus. But he kept pushing the notion of a vodka cure.

“I don’t drink, but recently I’ve been saying that people should not only wash their hands with vodka, but also poison the virus with it,” Lukashenko said in March. “You should drink the equivalent of 40 to 50 milliliters of rectified spirit daily.”

There is no scientific evidence that drinking alcohol will help ward off the virus. And health professionals have warned that vodka does not contain enough alcohol by volume to use as hand sanitizer.

Still, Lukashenko insists that in Belarus, at least, life will continue pretty much as normal.

“People are working in tractors. No one is talking about the virus,” Lukashenko said in March. “There, the tractor will heal everyone."


After months of lockdown, officials in the Bolivian city of Trinidad are trying a new approach to fighting the virus: an anti-parasite drug called ivermectin. An Australian study found that the drug could kill the virus in a cell culture in just 48 hours but the drug has not been tested in human trials.

Still, city officials plan to hand out 350,000 doses of the drug by going door to door, Reuters reported.

The Bolivian Ministry of Health cautioned that while the drug is considered safe in some treatments, there’s not enough evidence that it can treat the coronavirus.

“It is a product that does not have scientific validation in the treatment of the coronavirus,” Bolivian Health Minister Marcelo Navajas told reporters. “It does serve to treat parasitic diseases and other types of diseases. Therefore, we ask our medical colleagues who are going to use this product to do so with informed consent.”


Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina didn’t want to wait for anyone else to come up with a cure for coronavirus. Instead, he latched onto a medicine developed at the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, which he has described as an essential preventive and cure for the virus.

The herbal beverage, branded Covid Organics, is derived from a plant called Artemisia annua, which appears in some malaria treatments and is now being passed out across Madagascar.

Rajoelina has claimed that the remedy will “change the course of history.” In a televised address, he drank the beverage and called on others to do the same. Some students returning to school had to drink Covid Organics before they could resume classes. And Madagascar is now shipping the unproven herbal medicine to several other countries.

Traditional medicines are often used instead of or alongside modern medicine for symptom management. But the World Health Organization has urged against declaring herbal remedies a cure-all for the coronavirus in the absence of clinical trials.

“Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world,” WHO Africa said in a statement in early May. “Even if therapies are derived from traditional practice … establishing their efficacy and safety through rigorous clinical trials is critical.”