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 Michigan, Republican lawmakers railed against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over a March 2020 order restricting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment before it was approved as one. “Reps. Jeff Yaroch and Annette Glenn are urging the governor to ensure two promising anti-malarial drugs are available to treat coronavirus patients in Michigan,” the Michigan state House Republican caucus posted on social media on April 1. 

Even after multiple studies found that hydroxychloroquine did not help COVID-19 patients, Republican state representatives in 2022 unsuccessfully attempted to change state law to ensure patients with COVID-19 were able to access unapproved treatments. 

In March 2023, Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo baselessly claimed Whitmer had stopped a “life-saving treatment” for purely political reasons. “One of my gripes with Gretchen Whitmer — forget a lot of the political things you’d think would make me angry with her, like abortion, we didn’t get to that point — how about COVID, what happened with hydroxychloroquine?” she told MLive. “That woman needs to be criminally investigated and I stand by that statement.”

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.