A fight broke out among the White House coronavirus task force over the weekend regarding the potential use of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients.
According to a report from Axios, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci objected to task force members’ characterizations of the drug, saying that there was only anecdotal evidence of the drug’s effectiveness and cautioning that much more data is needed.
Fauci’s comments set off a heated exchange with Trump economic advisor Peter Navarro, who reportedly raised his voice and accused Fauci of being the only task force member who had objected to Trump’s China travel ban. It was the first such confrontation among the task force, according to Axios’ source.
Since late March, President Trump has repeatedly promoted the use of the drug, despite the limited testing that has been done on its effectiveness for treating COVID-19.
On Sunday, Trump reiterated his support for using it to treat coronavirus patients. “What do you have to lose?,” Trump asked, repeating his comments from Saturday. Trump also prevented Dr. Fauci from fielding a question on the use of hydroxychloroquine.
— EHA News (@eha_news) April 6, 2020
It’s unclear why Trump has been such a proponent of hydroxychloroquine, but one answer may lie with the millions of dollars in political support he has received from the founder of a pharmaceutical industry-funded group that has been pushing him to make the drug available.
On March 26, Job Creators Network, a conservative dark money nonprofit, launched a petition, a series of Facebook ads, and a blast text message campaign calling on Trump to “cut the red tape” and immediately make hydroxychloroquine available to treat patients.
“There is clear and ever-mounting evidence that the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can significantly help patients who contract coronavirus,” the petition states, despite the lack of rigorous clinical testing.
Some small clinical studies have shown that hydroxychloroquine may help to speed recovery from the coronavirus, while other small studies have found that the drug does not appear to help patients clear the virus. A much larger trial of 2,000 patients is currently being conducted by researchers at New York University, and results are expected in about eight weeks. The drug is currently being used in some hospitals and some anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness has been observed.
The Job Creators Network was founded in 2011 by billionaire Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, a major GOP donor who spent more than $7 million through outside groups to help elect Trump in 2016. Marcus has said that he plans to spend part of his fortune to help re-elect Trump in 2020.
Job Creators Network has been funded by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a drug industry trade that counts among its members leading hydroxychloroquine makers Novartis, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Bayer. According to tax documents, PhRMA donated $500,000 to Job Creators Network in 2017.
Novartis, Teva, and Bayer have all committed to providing millions of doses of hydroxychloroquine for clinical testing, and the companies potentially stand to profit if the drug becomes adopted as a common coronavirus treatment.
Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has said his company is searching for additional active ingredients in order to produce more hydroxychloroquine if it is needed.
Job Creator Network’s hydroxychloroquine campaign has been run in partnership with a nonprofit called Physicians for Reform, which works with FreedomWorks to promote deregulatory health care policies. FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that was founded by the Koch brothers, also receives money from PhRMA. According to tax documents PhRMA gave $100,000 to Freedomworks in 2018.
Since Trump began claiming that hydroxychloroquine may be a cure for the coronavirus, there has been a shortage of the drug, which besides being used for treating malaria is also approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating lupus and arthritis. The shortage of the drug has prompted the Lupus Foundation of America and other other medical groups to issue a joint statement to the White House coronavirus task force to work with them to help ensure the drug, and a related drug, chloroquine, would be available to patients who need it to stay alive. “While we support rigorous clinical trials to investigate their potential use for COVID-19, it is imperative to preserve access to these medications for those patients whose lives and productivity depend on them,” the groups wrote.