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 Wisconsin, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson was one of the most vocal members of Congress pushing the drug, even circulating a petition to remove FDA restrictions on its use. 

“Let’s give patients the right to try and doctors the right to prescribe hydroxychloroquine,” he tweeted on April 14, 2020. “Sign this letter to @POTUS to remove FDA restrictions so #HCQ can be used early on an out-patient basis and prohibit states from disciplining doctors for using it.”

“The evidence for the effectiveness of HCQ in treating #COVID is beginning to mount,” he tweeted that July. “Why was #HCQ politicized? Sure sounds like it can save lives.” 

Even after multiple studies found that hydroxychloroquine did not help COVID-19 patients, Johnson did not back down. In June 2021, he was suspended from YouTube for posting a video in which he recommended hydroxychloroquine, in violation of the company’s ban on medical misinformation. 
In 2022 and 2023, Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature also unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislation to allow providers to prescribe unproven therapies like hydroxychloroquine, claiming it would preserve “medical freedom.”

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.