On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced during a coronavirus task force press conference that the Food and Drug Administration has approved a common anti-malarial drug for “compassionate use” testing to treat patients with COVID-19, after reports that it might be an effective treatment.
Trump said the purpose of this “very important conference” was to announce what he described as a “very, very exciting” treatment for the pandemic. He also claimed that if the drug, known as chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, works, it would “depress the times” needed for extreme social distancing measures and that “the nice part is it’s been around for a long time so we know that if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.”
Commissioner of Food and Drugs Stephen Hahn was more tempered, saying it needed testing “in the setting of a clinical trial, a large pragmatic clinical trial” and that “we may have the right drug and it may not be in the appropriate dosage form right now and it may do more harm than good.”
But Trump would not be deterred, and later in the press conference he reemphasized his belief that the drug is already considered totally safe.
“The beauty is that these drugs have been out there so the really danger part of the drugs, especially chloroquine, it’s been out there for years, so we know it’s something that can be taken safely,” Trump declared. That time, Hahn did not correct the president.
One person who has expressed a more skeptical view of chloroquine is task force member and immunologist Anthony Fauci, the veteran face of the country’s response to disease outbreaks. But Fauci has not appeared at a press conference since Tuesday, when Trump said he had “become a major television star.”
Fauci for the past two days had been saying that chloroquine is not a miracle cure and that we still need to determine its safety.
Speaking to Laura Ingraham on Fox News on Tuesday, Fauci said, “We have to be careful, Laura, that we don’t assume something works based on an anecdotal report that’s not controlled. And I refer specifically to hydroxychloroquine. There’s a lot of buzz out there on the internet on the social media about that.”
On Wednesday, he reiterated this message in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, saying he supported large-scale clinical trials but was against “just throwing the drug out there, which is not a good idea.”
This would not be the first time Fauci has contradicted the president’s messaging during this crisis. Trump has described the testing regime as “perfect”; Fauci last week admitted to Congress that the government’s approach to testing “is a failing.”
The week before that, during a press event at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Fauci corrected the president’s statement that a vaccine was possibly just “three to four months” away, noting that in fact it would be “at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.”
And at a time when Trump was still giving cheery assessments of the situation last week, Fauci acknowledged to Congress that “bottom line: It’s going to get worse.”
Fauci’s repeated contradictions of the president have earned him a reputation as a truth teller in a government that has repeatedly deceived the public about the severity of the pandemic and the effectiveness of the response.
That’s why, on Thursday, it was curious to see Fauci absent from the podium for a second day in a row. Figures including Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, and The View co-host Joy Behar all wondered on Twitter why Fauci was not appearing.
As Trump has taken command of the task force press conferences in the past week, offering a more accurate account of the depth of the crisis while at the same time attacking the media and shirking any responsibility for testing and other failures, perhaps he’s less inclined to share the spotlight. Or maybe Fauci’s commitment thus far to uncomfortable truth-telling is too off message—his statements the past couple of days about chloroquine have certainly been a contrast with Trump’s on Thursday.
Whatever the reason, the office of Vice President Mike Pence—who is in charge of the task force—put out a statement after the press conference on Thursday saying: “Dr. Fauci participated in today’s Task Force meeting in the Situation Room. He has a full media schedule today including [PBS], [Facebook Live], [CNN] Town Hall, and [NBC News] in addition to his important work [at the National Institutes of Health]. Dr. Fauci will be back at the press briefing tomorrow.”
Given the pressing questions Trump evaded during Thursday’s press conference—particularly why he has refused to use the Defense Production Act to order factories to start mass-producing ventilators as states and cities face the potential for dire shortages and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, former Vice President Joe Biden, and congressional Democratic leaders have pleaded for urgent action—there should be a lot of information for Fauci to deliver when he returns.