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Trump says he's taking unproven drug he believes could protect him against COVID-19

U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday that he is taking a malaria drug to protect against the new coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for COVID-19 in a hospital or research setting due to potentially fatal side-effects.

Trump's own government and the FDA have warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine for the new coronavirus

U.S. President Donald Trump surprised reporters Monday when he said he has been taking the malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, to prevent COVID-19, even though there is no evidence the drug is effective in warding off the disease. 0:51

U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday that he is taking a malaria drug to protect against the new coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for COVID-19 in a hospital or research setting due to potentially fatal side-effects.

Trump told reporters he has been taking the drug, hydroxychloroquine, and a zinc supplement daily "for about a week and a half now." Trump spent weeks pushing the drug as a potential cure or prophylaxis for COVID-19 against the cautionary advice of many of his administration's top medical professionals. The drug has the potential to cause significant side-effects in some patients and has not been shown to combat the new coronavirus.

Trump, 73, said he had asked the White House physician if it was OK to take the drug, and the doctor told him, "Well, if you'd like it."

"I started taking it, because I think it's good," Trump said. "I've heard a lot of good stories."

WATCH | Katie Simpson on Trump's announcement he is taking an unproven drug to prevent COVID-19:

The CBC's Katie Simpson talks to Power and Politics host Vassy Kapelos about Donald Trump's revelation that he has been taking an unproven drug treatment to prevent COVID-19, despite warnings about the drug from health officials and his own government. 2:19

The Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat COVID-19 outside of hospital or research settings, due to sometimes fatal side-effects. Regulators issued the alert for the drug, which can also be used to treat lupus and arthritis, after receiving reports of heart-rhythm problems, including deaths, from poison control centres and other health providers.

Trump dismissed reports of side-effects, saying, "All I can tell you is, so far I seem to be OK."

Trump doctor responds

Monday evening, the White House released a statement from the president's physician, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, confirming Trump is taking the drug.

"After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks," it said. 

Conley went on to say that he is monitoring the "myriad studies" investigating potential COVID-19 therapies.

The statement did not say whether any other administration officials were also taking the drug.

At least two White House staffers tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, sparking concerns about the steps taken by the administration to protect the president and sending Vice-President Mike Pence and other officials into varying forms of self-isolation. Pence was at the news conference with Trump when the president made the revelation. 

The White House has since mandated that those in the West Wing wear face coverings and has introduced daily testing for the virus for the president, vice-president and those they come in close contact with. Trump says he continues to test negative for COVID-19.

Trump last underwent an "interim" checkup in a November visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that was not noted on his public schedule. His last complete physical took place in February 2019.

Serious side-effects

Several prominent doctors said they worried that people would infer from Trump's example that the drug works or is safe.

"There is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective for the treatment or the prevention of COVID-19," said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. "The results to date are not promising."

Trump surprised reporters and caused concern among medical professionals when he announced he has been taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

People should not infer from Trump's example "that it's an approved approach or proven," because it's not, said Dr. David Aronoff, infectious diseases chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

Hydroxychloroquine can cause potentially serious heart rhythm problems even in healthy people, but "it's hard to infer" that Trump's artery plaque, revealed in tests from his 2018 physical, makes the drug especially dangerous for him, Aronoff said.

Trump said he took hydroxychloroquine with an "original dose" of the antibiotic azithromycin. The president has repeatedly pushed the use of the drug with or without the antibiotic azithromycin, but no large, rigorous studies have found them safe or effective for preventing or treating COVID-19.

Studies do not find benefits of taking drug for COVID-19

Two large observational studies, each involving around 1,400 patients in New York, recently found no benefit from hydroxychloroquine. Two new ones published Thursday in the medical journal BMJ reached the same conclusion.

For one study, French researchers gave 84 hospitalized patients the drug and 97 others the usual care. There were no differences in the odds of death, need for intensive care or developing severe illness.

The other study from China was a stricter test: 150 adults hospitalized with mild or moderate illness were randomly assigned to get hydroxychloroquine or usual care. The drug made no difference in rates of clearing the virus or time to relief of symptoms, and they brought more side-effects.

In April, the National Institutes of Health launched a study testing hydroxychloroquine versus a placebo drug in 500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Last week, the NIH announced another study to see if hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin can prevent hospitalization or death in people with mild to moderate illness. About 2,000 U.S. adults with confirmed coronavirus infections and symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath will get the drugs or placebo pills.

U.S. prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine surged roughly 80 per cent in March to more than 830,000 compared with same period in the prior year, according to data tracking firm IQVIA. That jump in prescribing came before the federal government accepted nearly 30 million doses of the drug donated to the strategic national stockpile by foreign drugmakers. Since then, millions of those tablets have been shipped to U.S. hospitals nationwide for use treating patients with COVID-19.

With files from Reuters

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