WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - US President Donald Trump said in a surprise announcement on Monday (May 18) he is taking hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that he has touted despite medical warnings about its use, as a preventive medicine against the coronavirus.
Trump volunteered the disclosure during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the White House as he met restaurant executives whose businesses are reeling from the impact of the virus.
"I've been taking it for the last week and a half. A pill every day," Trump told reporters.
Weeks ago, Trump had promoted the drug as a potential treatment for the virus but subsequent studies found that it was not helpful. The Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about its use.
In an April 24 statement, the FDA said it was “aware of reports of serious heart rhythm problems” in patients with Covid-19 treated with hydroxychloroquine or an older drug, chloroquine.
Trump, 73, who is tested daily for the virus, said he had asked the White House physician if it was OK to take the drug, and the doctor told him, "well, if you'd like it". The president, a well-known germaphobe, has nonetheless refused to wear a protective mask in the West Wing.
White House physician Sean Conley said in a memo that Trump was in “very good health” and had been receiving regular Covid-19 testing, which has all been negative since one of his support staff tested positive for the disease two weeks ago.
“After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks,” Conley said in the memo released by the White House.
Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked on CNN about Trump’s taking the drug, said: "He’s our president. I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and his, shall we say weight group what is morbidly obese, they say."
According to the results of an annual presidential physical examination conducted in February 2019, Trump had gained weight over the past year and was now in the obese range, although remaining in "very good health overall."
Morbid obesity is generally defined as a body mass index (BMI) – a measure of weight relative to height – of 40 or higher. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is overweight and 30 or above is obese.
In an interview with MSNBC, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said: “What the president did with hydroxychloroquine was reckless, simply reckless.” “He’s giving people false hope,” Schumer added.
The disclosure came as Moderna Inc reported progress in a potential vaccine for the virus. The only drug that has emerged as a potential treatment is Gilead Sciences Inc's remdesivir, a drug reserved for hospital patients.
Fox News Channel, immediately after Trump's remarks, interviewed Dr Bob Lahita, who cautioned people not to take hydroxychloroquine.
"There's no effect that we have seen and we have treated multiple patients with it," he said.
Trump also attacked the United Nations health body as a Chinese "puppet" on Monday and confirmed he is considering slashing or canceling US support.
"They're a puppet of China, they're China-centric to put it nicer," he said at the White House.
Trump said the United States pays around US$450 million annually to the World Health Organisation, the largest contribution of any country.
Plans are being crafted to slash this because "we're not treated right." "They gave us a lot of bad advice," he said of the WHO.
Trump spoke as the WHO held its first annual assembly since the pandemic swept the world after originating in China, causing massive economic disruption and killing 316,000 people - close to a third of them in the United States.
Trump said China only pays about US$40 million a year and one idea was for Washington to bring "our 450 down to 40," but "some people thought that was too much."