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Hydroxychloroquine again in U.S. spotlight as video is widely shared by Trump, conservative groups

U.S. President Donald Trump issued a stout defence Tuesday of a disproved use of a malaria drug as a treatment for the coronavirus, hours after social media companies moved to take down videos promoting its use as potentially harmful misinformation.

Video funded by right-wing dark money groups was viewed several million times before being pulled

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House on Tuesday, where he once again questioned whether hydroxychloroquine could be used to treat COVID-19 patients. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump issued a stout defence Tuesday of a disproved use of a malaria drug as a treatment for the coronavirus, hours after social media companies moved to take down videos promoting its use as potentially harmful misinformation.

The president took to Twitter to again promote hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and to amplify criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert. In a White House briefing, Trump defended his decision to promote a viral video of a group of doctors promoting the use of the drug Monday, even though his own administration withdrew emergency authorization for its use against the coronavirus.

"I think they're very respected doctors," Trump said, noting they believed in the drug. "There was a woman who was spectacular in her statements about it." The doctors, members of a group called America's Frontline Doctors, took part in an event organized by Tea Party Patriots Action, a dark money group that has helped fund a pro-Trump political action committee.

Scientific studies have shown hydroxychloroquine can do more harm than good when used to treat symptoms of COVID-19.

Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., and others shared video of the event on Facebook and Twitter, prompting both companies to step in and remove the content as part of an aggressive push to keep the sites free of potentially harmful information about the virus — though not before more than 17 million people had seen one version of the video circulating on the web.

The drug hydroxychloroquine, pushed by Trump and other U.S. conservatives as a possible coronavirus treatment, is displayed by a pharmacist in Provo, Utah, in May. Studies have so far not proven the drug is effective in treating COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. (George Frey/Reuters)

The decision to remove the videos sparked conservative claims of "censorship," with Simone Gold, one of the doctors, tweeting that "there are always opposing views in medicine."

"Treatment options for COVID-19 should be debated, and spoken about among our colleagues in the medical field," she wrote. "They should never, however, be censored and silenced."

Others stressed the differences between medical opinion and peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Social media sites remove video

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube began scrubbing their sites of the video of the doctors on Monday. Conservative news outlets, groups and internet personalities shared it.

In the video, Dr. Stella Immanuel, a physician from Houston whom Trump described as spectacular, promotes hydroxychloroquine as a sure-fire cure for the coronavirus. She claims to have successfully treated 350 people "and counting," including older patients and some with underlying medical conditions.

"You don't need masks, there is a cure," Immanuel says in the video. Immanuel, also a preacher for a small congregation, expounds in other videos seen online with wild conspiracy theories about homosexuality, alien life and the illuminati.

"I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her," Trump said of Immanuel, sidestepping questions about her history of dubious medical claims and calling a halt to the briefing after a follow-up question about the doctor.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about Immanuel's video during an often-contentious congressional hearing Wednesday.

"We did take it down because it violates our policies," Zuckerberg said.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat leading the hearing, responded by noting that 20 million people saw the video before Facebook acted.

"Doesn't that suggest that your platform is so big, that even with the right policies in place, you can't contain deadly content?" Cicilline asked Zuckerberg.

Twitter also said it was working to remove the video. The company also took down a tweet from Donald Trump Jr. describing one version of the video as a "must watch!!!" and temporarily halted him from tweeting.

Many high-quality studies have found no evidence that hydroxychloroquine, when used with or without the antibiotic azithromycin, as touted many times by Trump, helps treat coronavirus infection or prevent serious disease from it.

They include studies commissioned by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the World Health Organization and universities in the U.S. and around the world.

WATCH | Hydroxychloroquine trials halted, researchers focus on other treatments:

Hydroxychloroquine trials halted, researchers focus on other COVID-19 treatments

2 years ago
Duration 1:56
The WHO has suspended trials of hydroxychloroquine, the once touted COVID-19 treatment, because it doesn't work and researchers are turning their focus to other promising treatments and the ongoing race for a vaccine.

Because of the lack of benefit and the risks of serious side effects such as heart rhythm problems, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently revoked its brief authorization of emergency use of the drug for COVID-19.

NIH treatment guidelines also specifically recommend against hydroxychloroquine's use, except in formal studies.

'Why don't I have a high approval rating?'

In addition to sharing the video, Trump retweeted several tweets that attacked the credibility of Fauci, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force.

Later, Trump appeared to back away from his criticism of Fauci, saying, "I get along with him very well," and even appeared envious of the doctor's widespread approval rating.

"He's got a very good approval rating, and I like that," Trump said, adding that Fauci and White House coronavirus task force co-ordinator Dr. Deborah Birx work for him.

"So why don't I have a high approval rating with respect — and the administration — with respect to the virus? We should have it very high," said Trump. "So it sort of is curious, a man works for us, with us, very closely, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx also, very highly thought of — and yet, they're highly thought of, but nobody likes me?"

White House coronavirus response co-ordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, right, and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, left, are shown on April 29. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Fauci has become an off-and-on target of Trump and some of his White House aides and outside allies, who disagreed with the doctor's early recommendation to shut down the economy as a way to slow the virus, which is surging again in parts of the country, mostly in the South and West.

In recent interviews, Trump has described Fauci as "a bit of an alarmist" and accused him of making "mistakes" in his coronavirus guidance. 

Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that he'll deal with the attacks by keeping his head down and doing his job. He also backed the conclusions of the FDA and others about hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19.

Asked if he can do his job while Trump publicly questions his credibility, Fauci said the stakes are too high not to stay involved.

"We're in the middle of a crisis with regard to an epidemic, a pandemic. This is what I do," Fauci said on ABC's Good Morning America. "This is what I've been trained for my entire professional life and I'll continue to do it."

More than four million people in the U.S. have been infected by the coronavirus and the death toll is nearing 150,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

With files from CBC News

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