Drug pushed by Republicans for COVID treatment may have contributed to 17,000 deaths

A chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. On Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming the Mayo Clinic “quietly” updated its website in 2023 to say that hydroxychloroquine can now be used to treat COVID-19. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File)

As the COVID-19 virus infected millions of people in 2020, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies urged Americans to take an anti-malarial medication called hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus, despite a lack of evidence for its effectiveness. A new study has found that beyond being ineffective against COVID-19, use of the medication may have been a factor in nearly 17,000 deaths between March and July of 2020.

Researchers in France relied on a previous study that found hospitalized COVID-19 patients given hydroxychloroquine were 11% more likely to die than those who were not . 

Using the previous study and data from Belgium, Turkey, France, Italy, Spain, and the United States, the researchers estimated that the number of hydroxychloroquine-related in-hospital deaths in those countries: “In conclusion, the number of [hydroxychloroquine] HCQ-related deaths is estimated at 16990, even though this number is probably underestimated because of the lack of data from most countries.”

After research in 2020 suggested hydroxychloroquine could slow the growth of the coronavirus in monkeys’ kidneys, Trump did not wait for the medical community to study whether it was an effective treatment for humans. 

At a briefing on March 19, 2020, Trump said of hydroxychloroquine and another drug: “I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer. Very powerful. They’re very powerful.” Days later, after the FDA approved it for emergency use as a COVID-19 treatment, Trump again recommended the drug. “What really do we have to lose?” he asked at his April 6 briefing, repeatedly claiming, “It doesn’t kill people.”

In Pennsylvania, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly told ABC’s “The View” in May 2020 that he had used hydroxychloroquine to treat his own COVID-19 case. “Maybe that reduced the effects on me,” he said. “I can’t say definitively that that’s what cured me, but I can say definitively that I took it and I can say that I went through a period of time that I was sick. I came out of it within about 9 days.” 

“I don’t think there’s anything stupid about that,” he added.
Even after multiple studies found that hydroxychloroquine did not help COVID-19 patients, Republican state representatives and senators in 2022 unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation to allow doctors and pharmacists to give patients hydroxychloroquine and other unproven drugs to treat and prevent COVID-19.

Republican misinformation about COVID-19 treatments extended well beyond the use of hydroxychloroquine, including recommending the veterinary anti-worm medicine ivermectin and even injected bleach.