There’s a raging debate over the use of hydroxychloroquine to fight the novel coronavirus. Amid the controversy, it may seem like there is absolutely nothing we can agree on.
To be fair, the fact that there has been debate on this issue isn’t surprising, nor is it unhealthy. Although the Food and Drug Administration has granted an emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine (and I believe rightly so; more on that later) as a coronavirus treatment, we still know quite little about its efficacy for this usage.
What is unhealthy, though, is the kind of debate we’ve been having. As my colleague Jim Geraghty pointed out on Monday, most of the conversation about the drug has been two politically motivated sides shouting at each other, framing their arguments as if any of this is a clear-cut, black-and-white issue. President Trump and his supporters tout it as a sort of medical marvel, while his detractors cry that it’s dangerous quackery. This, Geraghty explains, is the wrong approach — there are “many factors” at play when it comes to determining how a drug will or will not work. The results will vary from person to person; “nuance” is necessary. Partisan politics already play an outsized role in our conversation. When it comes to matters of life versus death, it is especially disgusting.
Here’s what we know. We have seen reported instances of this drug working very well for some coronavirus patients. Over the weekend, a Los Angeles-based doctor told a local ABC affiliate that he has seen amazing results when combining it with zinc. “Every patient I’ve prescribed it to has been very, very ill and within eight to twelve hours, they were basically symptom-free,” Dr. Anthony Cardillo said. “So clinically I am seeing a resolution.”
It’s far from just one doctor saying that this is the case. These stories are found not only all over the country — from a woman in New York City to a Democratic state lawmaker in Michigan — but also around the world. A recent global survey of more than 6,000 doctors from 30 countries found that respondents rated hydroxychloroquine highest on a list of 15 treatments for coronavirus. There is a reason for hope.
Still, there’s a lot we don’t know. And it isn’t wrong to point that out, either. It is certainly nowhere near the time to call hydroxychloroquine the definitive answer to the coronavirus crisis. Dr. Anthony Fauci director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has noted that the promising evidence is merely “anecdotal.” A small-scale study out of China showed no benefit — and even suggested that in some cases, the drug may have made things worse. Like with all drugs, this one can also have some side effects: Doctors have warned that it can exacerbate existing health problems.
A lot remains uncertain. Many news outlets have said so. Politico’s article announcing the FDA’s emergency-use authorization stated that it had been done “despite scant evidence.” A Saturday Reuters article was headlined: “Exclusive: Pressed by Trump, U.S. pushed unproven coronavirus treatment guidance.” On Sunday, the Washington Post took a similar tack. But it’s wrong to suggest that this lack of “official” proof of efficacy means that the FDA’s emergency-use authorization was somehow misguided. That is something that we should all agree on.
My view on this has little to do with my view of the drug itself. Yes, I certainly am rooting for its efficacy — as every decent person should be — but I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t know enough to be sure that it will. At this point, none of us does for sure, not even the experts.
But America is supposed to be a free country, where individual liberty reigns supreme. For this reason, I have never understood why we throw people behind bars for being involved with substances the government has deemed “criminal” (though I’m aware people view this position as somehow radical). There should be no controversy, however, about the freedom to try potentially life-saving drugs. When a person is gravely ill with a life-threatening, fast-progressing illness — one lacking other treatments — denying access to an experimental treatment simply because it isn’t “proven,” is not just draconian, but also asinine. It’s been disappointing to see that more Americans aren’t shouting this from the rooftops.
Yes, we still have a lot to learn about hydroxychloroquine. Still, in times of crisis, we should unite around our common values as Americans. An individual’s bodily autonomy, especially when it comes to potentially life-saving options in a life-threatening situation, should certainly be one of them.