April 7, 2020 / By Heidi Przybyla
WASHINGTON — As the U.S. scales up purchase and use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients, a leading Mayo Clinic cardiologist is sounding a warning: Anyone promoting the drug also needs to flag its rare but serious — and potentially fatal — side effects.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat malaria, lupus and other autoimmune ailments but hasn’t yet been proven effective and safe in treating the coronavirus.
“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked Saturday at the White House when pressed by reporters about hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness. And while he’s suggested that patients consult with their physicians about the treatment, he’s also said the drug can “help them, but it’s not going to hurt them.”
On Tuesday, when asked about the drug’s potential side effects, he downplayed them. “The side effects are the least of it,” said Trump. “You’re not gonna die from this pill,” he said. “I say ‘try it’” he said, noting “I’m not a doctor” and to get a physician’s approval.
But the president’s reassurance is raising concerns among experts about the dangers the drug poses to some.
After observing the debate over hydroxychloroquine on TV news and in social media, Dr. Michael Ackerman, a genetic cardiologist who is director of the Mayo Clinic’s Windland Smith Rice Genetic Heart Rhythm Clinic, took the unusual step in late March of issuing guidance for physicians.
“What disturbed me the most was when I was seeing not political officials say these medications are safe but seeing on the news cardiologists and infectious disease specialists say” hydroxychloroquine “is completely safe without even mentioning this rare side effect,” Ackerman said in an interview.