False Hydroxychloroquine Claims Go Viral Again

In a press conference Monday on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, a group of doctors and right-wing political activists touted the benefits of the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine, describing it as part of “a cure” for Covid-19.

In other circumstances, their comments may have simply been ignored. None of the doctors appear to have published peer-reviewed research on hydroxychloroquine. None of them represented any major medical or scientific organization. One of the physicians has a gig plugging Bitcoin. Another has said that people having sex with demons in their dreams causes certain medical conditions, and that some medical treatments involve DNA from extraterrestrials.

Instead, the press conference — hosted and funded by the Tea Party Patriots — quickly went viral, fueled by tweets from President Donald J. Trump and one of his children, Donald Trump Jr., even as social media networks raced to take the video down, citing violations of their policies on medical misinformation. The president also shared a tweet carrying the hashtag #FauciTheFraud — a reference to Anthony Fauci, the president’s own coronavirus adviser, who has come under fire from some conservatives for, among other things, his critical evaluation of hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy.

The incident represents the latest chapter of drama over hydroxychloroquine, a common medication used to treat malaria, as well as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

In March, based on a small preliminary study by a controversial French scientist, some celebrities and politicians, including the president, began to plug the drug’s use for Covid-19. The Food and Drug Administration gave it emergency use authorization, which permits doctors to try experimental therapies. Research teams around the world launched large studies to examine hydroxychloroquine’s effects on Covid-19 patients.

Several major studies found that the drug did not help cure Covid-19. On June 15, the FDA revoked emergency use status.

The hydroxychloroquine boosters kept trucking. When Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s authoritarian-leaning president, contracted Covid-19 in early July, he said he was taking the drug. A study from the Henry Ford hospital in Michigan, suggesting that the drug could be effective, gained widespread attention earlier this month, including from the president and White House officials, even as experts raised serious questions about its methods — and even though one observational study is unlikely to overturn the weight of evidence from other research.

While there is real scientific uncertainty about effective treatments for Covid-19 — the virus, after all, is new — experts remain deeply skeptical of the accumulated evidence for hydroxychloroquine. “I think at this point, we can definitively say that hydroxychloroquine doesn’t work,” said Scott Gottlieb, who served as Trump’s FDA commissioner from 2017 to 2019, in an interview on Wednesday. Still, on Thursday, current FDA chief Stephen Hahn advocated a hands-off approach, saying the choice to take the drug should be “a decision between a doctor and a patient.”

Two other drugs — the antiviral remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone — do appear to help people recover from Covid-19. So why the continued fascination with an unproven malaria drug?

Some critics have suggested that the attention to hydroxychloroquine may be politically convenient, deflecting focus from other policy issues. Indeed, the latest spike in discussion about hydroxychloroquine came during a week when the Covid-19 death toll passed 150,000 people in the U.S., and new data showed that the national GDP had dropped an unprecedented 32 percent between April and June. Some 30 million Americans are still jobless, and a major unemployment benefit runs out on Friday.

Also in the News:

• In a study published this week in Nature Communications, a team of researchers from Japan and the U.S. detailed how bacteria living under the South Pacific Gyre, described by many experts as the “deadest” spot in the ocean, may have been lying dormant, starved of nutrients, for more than 100 million years — only to be revived in a lab. After extracting cores of clay and sediment from the seafloor, the researchers added carbon and nitrogen to the samples. The infusion of nutrients, according to Science, “woke up a variety of oxygen-using bacteria,” which began to multiply. If the study’s results are confirmed, the microbes could be some of the oldest living organisms in the world. Researchers say the work may also have implications for the search for life on other planets. “This opens up a whole Pandora’s box for where we could find life elsewhere in the universe,” Nagissa Mahmoudi, a geomicrobiologist at McGill University who wasn’t involved in the study, told The New York Times. “It seems everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve found life.” (The New York Times, Science)

• At least 20 people, many of them affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, have volunteered to try a do-it-yourself coronavirus vaccine. The group responsible for the DIY inoculation, the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative, or Radvac for short, was formed in March at the initiative of biologist Preston Estep, who wondered if an independent, self-funded group could move more quickly than the oft-cited goal of bringing a vaccine to market in 12 to 18 months. The experimental vaccine they developed utilizes fragments of the pathogen that, the group hopes, will trigger an immune response. Those who have taken the DIY inoculation include the renowned Harvard geneticist George Church and Estep himself. Unlike many of the vaccines currently in development, the vaccine lacks government funding, animal testing, or ethical approval, and it is administered via a nasal spray. Church reported receiving two doses in the mail containing ingredients he then mixed himself. Radvac has also published the steps to making its vaccine online. The effectiveness and side effects of the vaccine are still unknown, though, and some experts are skeptical. But, Estep told MIT Technology Review, “if you are just making it and taking it yourself, the FDA can’t stop you. (MIT Technology Review)

• The heads of Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google were grilled this week by members of the U.S. House antitrust subcommittee on whether their companies had leveraged their power to unfairly squash competitors and limit consumers’ choices. Appearing via videoconference due to the pandemic, the four chief executives — Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and Sundar Pichai — provided testimony as part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into whether current policies, which only lightly regulate the technology sector, have done more harm than good. Committee members pressed Zuckerberg about email exchanges with Facebook executives in which he discussed purchasing Instagram and WhatsApp as a strategy to avoid competition. Bezos faced questions on allegations that Amazon bullies third-party sellers and mines data from their sales to improve its house brand products. Pichai answered questions about the search engine privileging results from Google-owned properties at the expense of small businesses, while Cook was asked about Apple’s app store policies favoring certain developers over others. For the most part, the CEOs deflected the questions or said they couldn’t recall specific company policies. Policy experts and technology journalists were mixed about the hearing, with some praising committee members for having grasped the technical specifics, and others charging that certain Republican lawmakers had focused too much on whether the companies sought to suppress conservative speech. It remains to be seen if the subcommittee will be able to prove any of the companies are in clear violation of U.S. antitrust law by the conclusion of their probe. (Multiple sources)

• Two studies released this week underlined the tricky balance of safely opening schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic, an issue that has become increasingly contentious as regular fall start dates approach. An analysis published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looked at the effect of spring school closures during the first peak of the coronavirus in the U.S., and found a strong indication that, even when other factors were considered, school closures were associated with “decreased Covid-19 incidence and mortality,” and likely saved tens of thousands of lives. Another report in JAMA, published Thursday, warned that young children infected with Covid-19, although often experiencing far fewer symptoms than adults, can carry as much of the virus in their noses and throats as an ailing older person. The finding may have implications for the ongoing debate over what role infected children play in transmitting Covid-19. In the case of both studies, experts emphasize that the research, while not conclusive, indicates that school reopenings should be approached with care. (STAT, The New York Times)

• And finally: NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully launched from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, becoming the third in a caravan of spacecraft currently headed toward Mars. A week earlier, China’s Tianwen-1 — carrying a Martian orbiter, lander, and rover — launched from Hainan Island in southern China. Three days before that, the United Arab Emirates sent its Hope orbiter hurtling toward the red planet. The three spacecraft face a seven-month journey to Mars, with their arrivals slated for February 2021. Once there, Perseverance will attempt to land in an ancient crater, where it will search for signs of bygone life, listen to the Martian winds, and gather rock samples to be returned to Earth by a later mission. Meanwhile, scientists are hailing the Hope and Tianwen-1 missions as milestones in a new, global era of space exploration. The mission by the United Arab Emirates — which until six years ago did not have a national space agency — marks the first interplanetary mission by any Arab state, Nature reports. And China’s Tianwen-1 mission, if successful, will mark the first soft-landing on Mars by a country other than the U.S. (Nature)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Lucas Haugen, Deborah Blum, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.