In response to The New York Times Downplays Promising COVID-19 Development
Alexandra writes that journalists should not “cover a potential positive development” — viz., the possibility that anti-malarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine can effectively treat COVID-19 — “from the angle of how best they can disparage the president.” What she leaves unsaid is whether presidents should talk about a potential positive development from an angle of optimism that outstrips the available evidence.
Trump said at a press conference that he “feels good” about these drugs. Today he tweeted that they “have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” Alexandra cites optimistic comments from a microbiologist to argue that Trump’s comments were “not unreasonable.” But is reasonableness a reasonable standard for public commentary from the president right now? Infectious-disease researcher Gaetan Burgio argues on Twitter that the evidence of the drugs’ utility is scant. Anthony Fauci said in a press conference that this evidence “was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.” Physician Edsel Salvana points out that the drug can have bad side effects for people with heart conditions. The Times reporters also observe that people with lupus rely on the drug and that Trump’s comments may cause demand to spike.
We all hope this crisis ends as quickly as possible, and it seems possible to this layman that these anti-malarial drugs could be a solution. But there are many non-trivial reasons that medical research proceeds slowly and according to stringent evidentiary standards. It is one thing for a microbiologist to advance a speculative case for optimism on Facebook; it is another for the president to advance that speculative case in front of hundreds of millions of people.