Former VA secretary questions president's use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19

Abbie Bennett
May 20, 2020 - 3:10 pm

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin questioned President Donald Trump's use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 prevention.

Shulkin criticized the president's decision, which he said could send a dangerous message. Shulkin was a doctor and administrator before he joined VA and led the department as secretary from 2017 until March 2018, when Trump fired him. The reason for his removal was never publicly released. 

“At this point to take a drug that has no effectiveness or no known effectiveness, but potential harm, just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Shulkin said in a CNN interview Wednesday afternoon. “I’m concerned about the way that this is probably being discussed and that other Americans may believe that this is now safe to do. And this clearly is not safe." 

Shulkin said Trump's decision to take hydroxychloroquine was not based on scientific evidence, but on his personal choice.

"Normally, if you press your doctor for something and they really think it's not a good idea for you to take (it), they're not going to prescribe it," Shulkin said. "But if you're the president and you say to your doctor, 'I really want to take this,' how does that play out?" 

The president praised the drug as a possible cure or preventative for the coronavirus, despite a lack of evidence. The Food and Drug Administration recommends "extreme caution" in prescribing the drug and several groups have said it could have dangerous side effects, including heart complications. 

VA has come under fire recently for its use of the unproven drug on veterans with COVID-19, with veterans and advocates accusing the department of "experimenting" on patients or using veterans as "test subjects." 

A recent review of hundreds of veteran medical records showed that those treated with the drug were more likely to die or need ventilator support than those that received standard care. Current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has downplayed that study and promoted the drug, which can cause serious side effects in some patients. 

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets VA planned to continue use of the drug, despite criticism. 

On Tuesday, the president called the results of the review of veteran medical records "a phony study put out by the VA" and said he believed criticism of the drug amounted to political attacks. 

"The only negative I've heard was the study where they gave it -- was it the VA? With, you know, people that aren't big Trump fans gave it," he said, saying he was surprised at what he characterized as disloyalty at VA after he signed the Mission Act to support the department. 

The VA did not conduct the study. Researchers outside VA used VA data to conduct the review, Wilkie said. 

Other, larger clinical studies also have shown no benefit to using the drug for COVID-19. 

The president plans to continue to take the antimalarial medication, he said. 

"I think it's worth it as a line of defense," Trump said.  "And I'll stay on it for a little while longer." 

Shulkin said he worried the president's use of the drug could influence other Americans.

"I am not concerned about a doctor discussing and prescribing hydroxychloroquine to a patient," he said. "But I am concerned about the way this is being done publicly and the influence this can wield to Americans." 

The drug is used in the military on troops to help prevent malaria, but Shulkin said that use of the drug can't compare to using it for the coronavirus, or using it on the general public. 

"That's done mostly in young, healthy adults who are going into the military, which is very different than many people today who are out there concerned about getting COVID-19," he said. 

Shulkin said overall he was concerned about the coronavirus' effects on veterans and said he believes VA may underestimate how many have been touched by the virus. 

"There are 20 million veterans in this country and the Department of Veterans Affairs is reporting that there are 1,000 deaths," he said. "My concern is that there are many more veterans suffering, there are many more veterans that need help ... We have to make sure that we're looking out for and protecting all of our veterans in this country." 


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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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