Column: Trump, Musk hyped a possible coronavirus treatment. Now a man has died
It’s a truism that ignorant information tends to fill a vacuum. Thanks to people like President Trump and Elon Musk, we’re now learning that ignorance can drive good information out of the public sphere — dangerously.
The leading data point on the perils of this sort of ignorance comes from Phoenix. There, the hospital chain Banner Health reports that a man has died and his wife is in critical condition after they ingested chloroquine phosphate.
The widow told NBC News that the couple had watched briefings in which Trump talked up the use of chloroquine as a therapy for the virus. In fact, the substance they took wasn’t the medicinal preparation for humans. It was “an additive commonly used at aquariums to clean fish tanks,” Banner says.
It’s also used to treat common diseases of aquarium fish, for which it’s available only with a veterinarian’s prescription. The widow said that the couple had a supply of the aquarium compound at hand because they had used it to treat their koi.
‘It may work, it may not work. I feel good about it. That’s all it is. Just a feeling.’
— Dangerous misinformation about chloroquine from President Trump
Within a half-hour of their ingesting the chemical, the couple began to succumb to poisoning.
Multiple lessons should be drawn from this incident. One is that no one should try to treat themselves for any serious condition without a doctor’s advice.
More important, however, is that public officials and celebrities who don’t know what they’re doing should put a sock in it. There’s no more perilous time to be spouting ignorant takes than during a mass panic attack, like now.
Start with Trump. His behavior is nothing short of reckless and shameful. After apparently being told about a few studies that posit potentially positive anti-viral effects from chloroquine, a drug used widely as an anti-malarial and also for serious diseases such as lupus, Trump began touting it as a nostrum for the novel coronavirus.
Not only has this caused a shortage of the drug for patients who genuinely need it, but Trump is way, way ahead of the science. There have been studies of the efficacy of chloroquine in combination with another drug in combating the virus, but they are still preliminary and some are inconclusive.
Trump’s heedless promotion of an unvalidated drug to an audience desperate for solutions to a public health emergency can have potentially devastating consequences, as we can now see. Despite his documented aversion to speaking the truth, for many people his words still have the veneer of government advice.
The truth is that chloroquine taken without a doctor’s supervision can be dangerous for many people. The list of side effects is long, including nausea, vomiting, cramps, headache and diarrhea. So is the list of counterindications. It can affect the heart and isn’t recommended for diabetics, pregnant women or people with impaired liver function, among many others.
The rift between the experience of those able to work from home and those in the service sector, now out of work, shows how the coronavirus outbreak will only exacerbate income inequality in America.
This hasn’t stopped Trump. “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” he tweeted over the weekend. At a press briefing a few days earlier, he had expounded on the topic, declaring that chloroquine had shown “very, very encouraging early results” and that “we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.”
This forced Trump’s medical advisors to step up to undo the damage. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, an oncologist, explained at the briefing that the drug was being tested only “in the setting of a clinical trial — a large, pragmatic clinical trial” to determine its efficacy and safety.
The very next day, Trump said, “It may work, it may not work. I feel good about it. That’s all it is. Just a feeling.” That forced Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and a trusted actual expert on the topic, to emphasize that studies are still being done “to determine if it’s truly safe and truly effective.”
Let’s be frank here. On this topic, Donald Trump is an ignoramus. Anyone who follows his advice or believes that he knows what he’s talking about needs to have their head examined, professionally.
The same goes for Elon Musk. The chief executive of the electric car company Tesla is the quintessential business tycoon who believes that because he’s had some public success in one sphere, his opinions on a wide spectrum of other things are all but infallible.
In recent days, alarm about the economic impact of the novel coronavirus have turned conservatives who weeks ago were boasting about the shrinking of the U.S. government into raving Keynesians, proclaiming the virtues of deficit-financed economic stimulus.
On March 13, Musk tweeted that chloroquine “maybe worth considering” for the treatment of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The tweet got more than 13,000 retweets.
Last week, Musk tweeted the absolutely false assertion that children are “essentially immune” from the virus. This assertion was promptly contradicted by Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, who said: “No one is immune. We know it is highly contagious for everyone.”
Musk also has tweeted, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” And he tried to keep his Tesla factory in Fremont open despite local officials’ shelter-in-place order by deeming it an “essential business.” Local officials eventually persuaded him otherwise, and he closed it down.
Celebrities pitching nostrums for health conditions have been permitted to infest the public airwaves for years. Some, like Gwyneth Paltrow, have built business empires out of doing so. In most though not all cases, these activities pose little harm except perhaps to their marks’ pocketbooks. In others — witness the persistence of the anti-vaccine lobby — they can cost the lives of innocents.
But nothing is as egregious as the promotion of supposed cures or treatments for the novel coronavirus, the biology of which is still under study by professionals and in many ways still a mystery. Trump has turned himself into a threat to public health. And Musk may not be far behind.