Trump hypes unproven coronavirus drugs as top science officials manage expectations

“We want to do that in the setting of a clinical trial — a large, pragmatic clinical trial — to actually gather that information and answer the question that needs to be answered,” Hahn said of chloroquine’s effectiveness.

Chloroquine is one of several medications — some already on the market for other diseases, some still in the clinical pipeline — that are being tested to see if they can treat the novel virus, to make it less severe. Scientists in several countries around the world, some part of a multinational WHO effort, are undertaking studies of whether the drug, used for malaria and arthritis, can help save lives from this disease.

But the existing research Trump was so enthused about is very preliminary, as Fauci painstakingly explained several times on Friday. Basically, the science done to date shows that it’s worth investigating further — but it doesn’t prove much on its own about its effect on Covid-19.

The United States is obtaining “millions” of doses for further study and for “compassionate use” — letting doctors try the unproven drug on very sick people. Scientists can collect data if a drug is given under compassionate use rules — though not as fully as in a clinical trial.

While the malaria drug has a fairly good safety profile; no medication is without some risks. And it’s completely unknown whether it’s safe for people who are dangerously ill with coronavirus. Researchers don’t yet know when to administer it, or at what doses. It may work best right after someone is infected, or could be most effective only if someone is already critically ill.

Barry Bloom of Harvard School Public Health told reporters earlier this week that preliminary research shows chloroquine might have the greatest effect “at earliest stage of disease” — currently a challenge when the U.S. is only testing people who already have severe symptoms.

“Something that prevents people from being severely ill is wonderful, but unlikely to affect the epidemic unless it could be used very early on,” he warned.

In the best case scenario, it will take months to know whether, as Fauci said Friday, it’s “truly safe and truly effective” with this disease.

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