Trump says he's taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent coronavirus — is it safe?

NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said that the drug, used most often to treat malaria, can be fatal in the wrong setting.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Maura Hohman

After President Donald Trump announced Monday night that he's been taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19, the question about the safety of the drug, often used for malaria, has reemerged.

In a segment on TODAY Tuesday, NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres discussed the side effects of hydroxychloroquine, which doesn't have any proven benefits as a treatment for the coronavirus.

"When the president says he's taking this, a lot of people listen. They (think) they should probably take it, too," Torres said. "The case is not that here. People should not be taking this."

He then broke down what the research has been showing.

"We know it works for malaria. That's what it was approved for," Torres explained. "Some doctors are using it off-label to try and prevent people from getting the coronavirus, but that doesn't look like it works."

In fact, one informal study of 368 male patients hospitalized for the coronavirus found that those given routine treatment and hydroxychloroquine were more likely to die than those who did not take the drug and just received regular care. Of the former group, 28% died versus 11% of the latter. The study also found that hydroxychloroquine did not make patients less likely to need a breathing machine.

In addition to calling out the drug's questionable effectiveness, Torres emphasized that some people who've taken it have developed heart arrhythmias that can be "fatal." As a result, these patients require monitoring, he said, and it's unclear if this is part of the president's care plan.

"The FDA came out with a warning saying not to take it outside clinical settings or clinical trial settings because of that heart arrhythmia issue," Torres said, adding that Trump, 73, is at high risk for heart issues from the drug. This group includes people over 68 and with previous heart issues.

"(The president) should be getting tested at this stage for his heart, and there should be continuous monitoring," Torres stressed.

Another reason experts are concerned by the president's announcement: drug shortages, already increasing amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hydroxychloroquine, in particular, has been in short supply, and some experts worry Trump's comments could lead to hoarding behaviors.

As Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, explained on Twitter Monday: "In the US, hydroxychloroquine is used extensively and particularly for people with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. It's a necessary drug for them and not having access would have terrible consequences."