In an article published on Thursday and updated on Friday, New York Times reporters downplayed the possibility of using hydroxycholoroquine (HCQ), an anti-malaria drug, to treat COVID-19.
“With Minimal Evidence, Trump Asks F.D.A. to Study Malaria Drugs for Coronavirus,” the headline reads. And the subtitle: “The use of the existing drugs against the new virus is unproven, and some shortages have already been reported.”
The article went on to claim that the president had “exaggerated the potential of drugs available to treat the new coronavirus, including an experimental antiviral treatment and decades-old malaria remedies that hint of promise but so far show limited evidence of healing the sick.”
Another Times article on the topic bore the headline “Trump’s Embrace of Unproven Drugs to Treat Coronavirus Defies Science.”
No one should suggest, based on the available evidence, that HCQ is some sort of silver bullet that will cure COVID-19 and get us out of this global crisis. But neither should reporters cover a possible positive development from the angle of how best they can disparage the president. And Trump’s comments about the drug, though perhaps more optimistic than warranted, were not unreasonable.
According to the Times‘s own reporting, when discussing the recent studies on the effects of HCQ in COVID-19 patients, Trump “acknowledg[ed] he couldn’t predict the drugs would work.”
“I feel good about it. And we’re going to see. You’re going to see soon enough,” Trump said. Hardly comments bad enough to require the Times to cover hopeful scientific evidence with a laser-like focus on the flaws in the president’s tone.
Of course, like the president, I can’t predict whether HCQ will work. Nor am I a scientist with an advanced understanding of antimalarials. But based on what I’ve read, I think there’s reason for some optimism. On this subject, I found useful some commentary from American microbiologist and Dominican priest Nicanor Austriaco, who has a PhD in biology from MIT and is chief researcher at the Austriaco lab at Providence College.
In a Facebook post yesterday, Austriaco wrote that he was “struck by the attempts of these New York Times reporters to dismiss or minimize the impact of the possible use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to treat COVID-19.” He noted that the results from the study in France — which found that HCQ, both on its own and in conjunction with the antibiotic azithromycin, successfully removed the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 from a number of patients — were limited but promising, especially when reviewed in conjunction with data from a Chinese study finding that HCQ had anti-viral effects on SARS-CoV-2 in a test tube.
Of the Chinese study, Austriaco wrote, “They were able to provide a mechanism of action for this anti-viral activity, and it is a reasonable one. (For molecular biologists, mechanism makes all the difference in the world!) Briefly, it alters the pH of the parts of the cell necessary for viral reproduction.” He added that the “molecular evidence for anti-viral function” makes the clinical-study results more promising.
“In the end, despite what the NYT says, I am very optimistic about this development. I think that the headline is misleading,” Austriaco concluded. “Yes, there is minimal evidence but that is not unexpected in a pandemic. But the minimal evidence is actually pretty solid, given the practical limits of doing clinical trials in a global crisis. Yet, when both in vitro and in vivo studies converge, that is an optimistic sign. Especially when you have a mechanism of action that is reasonable and is in line with what we know about viral reproduction.”
This doesn’t mean we should all rush to the nearest beach this weekend, assuming that the miracle cure is on its way. But as pharmaceutical company Bayer seeks approval from the FDA to sell its chloroquine product in the U.S. to be used on an emergency basis to treat COVID-19, there’s no reason in the world for a leading newspaper to trivialize scientific evidence for the sake of attacking the president.