WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump issued a stout defense Tuesday of a disproved use of a malaria drug as a treatment for the coronavirus, hours after social media companies moved to take down videos promoting its use as potentially harmful misinformation.
The president, in a marked shift from the more measured approach he’s taken toward the virus in recent days, took to Twitter to promote hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and to amplify criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. In a White House briefing, Trump defended his decision to promote a viral video of a group of doctors promoting the use of the drug Monday, even though his own administration withdrew emergency authorization for its use against the coronavirus.
“I think they’re very respected doctors," Trump said, adding they believed in the drug. "There was a woman who was spectacular in her statements about it.” The doctors, members of a group called America’s Frontline Doctors, took part in an event organized by Tea Party Patriots Action, a dark money group that has helped fund a pro-Trump political action committee.
Scientific studies have shown hydroxychloroquine can do more harm than good when used to treat symptoms of COVID-19.
Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., and others shared video of the event on Facebook and Twitter, prompting both companies to step in and remove the content as part of an aggressive push to keep the sites free of potentially harmful information about the virus — though not before more than 17 million people had seen one version of the video circulating on the web.
The decision to remove the videos sparked conservative claims of “censorship,” with Simone Gold, one of the doctors, tweeting that “there are always opposing views in medicine.”
“Treatment options for COVID-19 should be debated, and spoken about among our colleagues in the medical field,” she wrote. “They should never, however, be censored and silenced.”
Others stressed the differences between medical opinion and peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Many high-quality studies have found no evidence that hydroxychloroquine, when used with or without the antibiotic azithromycin, as touted many times by Trump, helps treat coronavirus infection or prevent serious disease from it. They include studies commissioned by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization and universities in the U.S. and around the world.
Because of the lack of benefit and the risks of serious side effects such as heart rhythm problems, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently revoked its brief authorization of emergency use of the drug for COVID-19. NIH treatment guidelines also specifically recommend against hydroxychloroquine’s use, except in formal studies.
In addition to sharing the video, Trump retweeted several tweets that attacked the credibility of Fauci, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force.
Later, Trump appeared to back away from his criticism of Fauci, saying, “I get along with him very well" and even appearing envious of his widespread approval rating.
“He’s got a very good approval rating, and I like that," Trump said, adding that Fauci and White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx work for him, “And yet they’re highly thought of but nobody likes me.”
Fauci has become an off-and-on target of Trump and some of his White House aides and outside allies, who disagreed with the doctor's early recommendation to shut down the economy as a way to slow the virus, which is surging again in parts of the country, mostly in the South and West.
Trump, in recent interviews, has described Fauci as “a bit of an alarmist” and accused him of making “mistakes” in his coronavirus guidance. But Trump also says he gets along with the longtime head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci said Tuesday that he'll deal with the attacks by keeping his head down and doing his job. He also backed the conclusions of the FDA and others about hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19.
Asked if he can do his job while Trump publicly questions his credibility, Fauci said the stakes are too high not to stay involved.
“We're in the middle of a crisis with regard to an epidemic, a pandemic. This is what I do," Fauci said on ABC's “Good Morning America.” "This is what I’ve been trained for my entire professional life and I’ll continue to do it.”
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube began scrubbing their sites of the video of the doctors on Monday. Conservative news outlets, groups and internet personalities shared it.
Facebook said the video is “sharing false information about cures and treatments for COVID-19,” according to spokesman Andy Stone.
Twitter also said it was working to remove the video. The company also took down a tweet from Donald Trump Jr. describing one version of the video as a “must watch!!!” and temporarily halted him from tweeting.
In the video, Dr. Stella Immanuel, a physician from Houston whom Trump described as spectacular, promotes hydroxychloroquine as a sure-fire cure for the coronavirus. She claims to have successfully treated 350 people “and counting,” including older patients and some with underlying medical conditions.
“You don’t need masks, there is a cure,” Immanuel says in the video. But in videos posted to her Facebook page, Immanuel regularly wears masks while preaching during religious events.
“I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her," Trump said of Immanuel, sidestepping questions about her history of dubious medical claims.
Trump initially flouted guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on wearing face masks, saying he wouldn't be doing it — and he didn't in public until this month.
After multiple polls showed the public disapproved of his handling of the coronavirus, Trump recently began encouraging people to wear face coverings and tried to project a more serious tone as the virus has surged again, primarily in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.
Trump wore a face mask in public on Monday in North Carolina, just the second time he has done so during the pandemic.
Last week, he said the situation would probably worsen before it gets better, and he cited the virus as a reason for canceling GOP convention events scheduled for August in Jacksonville, Florida.
More than 4 million people in the U.S. have been infected by the coronavirus and the death toll is nearing 150,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Seitz reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers David Klepper in Providence, R.I., and Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee contributed to this report.