Remdesivir, an antiviral medication that was developed by the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, has been widely touted as the most promising drug to treat COVID-19, even though—so far—the new and expensive drug does not seem to be terribly effective at fighting the disease.
The anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, on the other hand, is cheap, has been used safely for decades, and has shown great promise as a weapon in the fight against the coronavirus—yet after President Trump mentioned it as a promising potential treatment for the disease, the media immediately blasted him for touting an “unproven” and potentially unsafe drug.
As Full Measure reported Sunday night, the two camps have divided along political lines, with conservatives siding with hydroxychloroquine and the left-leaning media backing remdesivir.
The FDA seems to have taken a side too, green-lighting emergency use of remdesivir for severely ill coronavirus patients, while warning that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine should only be taken in the hospital or as part of a formal study due to reports of “serious heart rhythm problems.”
Investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson spoke with a doctor and several scientists who told her that the anti-hydroxychloroquine bias in the media has been “unwarranted,” “harmful,” and has even “cost lives.”
Attkisson also “followed the money” to find out why the two drugs are being treated so differently. Not surprisingly, she found that many of the people promoting remdesivir have major conflicts of interest.
She first spoke with cardiologist Dr. William O’Neill, a medical director at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan, where both remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine are being studied.
O’Neill told Attkisson that the media’s attempts to “disprove and discredit” hydroxychloroquine has been “very harmful.”
“I think those of us that are actually involved in the scientific endeavor feel that there is some value to it and it has to be tested,” he said.
Joining many other doctors who have gone on the record to praise hydroxychloroquine as a promising treatment for coronavirus, O’Neill said that he’s seen improvement in every coronavirus patient to whom he has prescribed the drug.
Remdesivir, on the other hand, leaves him cold.
“There’s a lot of hype for the drug,” he said. “I saw the original new England Journal article study and I saw the Lancet study and to me it’s just like a big Ho Hum. I just don’t see a big benefit to it,” O’Neill told Attkisson.
Attkisson noted that “a draft version of a study was accidentally published last month showing remdesivir did not help most coronavirus patients and caused such serious side effects, 18 test subjects were taken off the drug.”
O’Neill is currently leading a hydroxychloroquine study in Michigan, but says the media’s bias against the drug is making things difficult for him.
“Now people are scared to use the drug without any scientifically valid concern,” he explained. The doctor characterized the media’s hostile coverage of hydroxychloroquine as “fake news and fake science.”
We’ve talked with our colleagues at the University of Minnesota who are doing a similar study, and at the University of Washington. We’ve treated 400 patients and haven’t seen a single adverse event. And what’s happening is because of this fake news and fake science, the true scientific efforts are being harmed because people now are so worried that they don’t want to enroll in the trials.
Attkisson also talked to Dr. Steven Hatfill, a biomedical scientist who studies pandemic responses and medicine.
“Why are the press running medicine in the United States?” he asked. “This is not right.”
Hatfill told the reporter that there’s an unwarranted campaign against hydroxychloroquine.
“You think lives were lost because it wasn’t used?” Attkisson asked.
“Yes, lives were lost,” he answered.
The scientist said the drug should be used as a prophylaxis for healthy critical workers going back to work, as well as high risk populations such as people with “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ex-smokers, diabetics, obesity.”
A third scientist Attkisson spoke to said hydroxychloroquine has been unfairly disparaged, and had a pretty good theory as to why.
is Dr. Jane Orient, head of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.
“How do you account for the difference in medical and scientific opinion about this drug?” Attkisson asked Dr. Jane Orient, head of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.
“That’s a very good question,” Orient replied. “But the ones who have the most experience are very enthusiastic about the possibilities.”
And we do have naysayers that we suspect may have a little conflict of interest because they are so enthusiastic about remdesivir, which is a new drug that hasn’t been approved for anything. And that so far is showing a really very equivocal or even negative results.
All three scientists criticized a recent VA report that denigrated hydroxychloroquine, saying it was “little more than a list of cases with crucial details missing.”
And one of the report’s authors, Attkisson found, received major research funding from Gilead, the company that makes remdesivir, “including a 247-thousand dollar grant in 2018.”
“I think we have to look at the money,” Orient said. “There’s no big profits made in hydroxychloroquine.”
It’s very cheap, easy to manufacture, been around for 70 years. It’s generic. Remdesivir is a new drug that could be very expensive and very lucrative if it’s ever approved. So I think we really do have to consider there’s some financial interest involved here.
Dr. Hatfill told Attkisson that some of the decisions being made concerning the drugs “do not seem to be rational” and that when what seems like a clear path is not taken, “very often, money is somehow involved.”
The experts on a government panel that devised the coronavirus treatment guidelines talked up remdesivir but downplayed hydroxychloroquine. Full Measure checked into their financial ties to see if there were any conflicts of interest there.
“We found that of 11 members reporting links to a drug company, nine of them named relationships to remdesivir’s maker Gilead,” Attkisson said.
Seven more, including two of the committee’s leaders, have ties to Gilead beyond the 11 months they had to disclose. Two were on Gilead’s advisory board. Others were paid consultants or received research support and honoraria. Nobody reported ties to hydroxychloroquine which is now made by numerous generic manufacturers and is so cheap, analysts say even a spike in sales would not be a financial driver for the companies.
Attkisson asked Dr. O’Neill if it’s possible that both drugs could be helpful in the right settings.
O’Neill answered that that “absolutely” could be.
“I think that it’s just still very early in this disease process that we’re going to learn lot,” he explained. “There’s 600 studies that are being done in the United States right now on Covid to see all sorts of different kinds of infections and combinations. We’re going to be a lot smarter at the end of the summer. So I think what I would just say to everybody, just hold your powder.”