FDA clarifies that no drugs are approved to treat COVID-19 after Trump names 2 contenders

Trump at FEMA
(Image credit: Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)

President Trump held up two drugs as possible treatments for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in a conference call with governors on Thursday. He said chloroquine, an older drug used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, was "very powerful" and has shown "very, very encouraging early results," adding that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the drug for use against the coronavirus.

The FDA said in a subsequent statement that "there are no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure, or prevent COVID-19." Doctors can prescribe chloroquine "off-label," for unapproved uses, to treat COVID-19 patients.

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Chloroquine, which can be lethal if taken by children or in large doses, will be tested in a "large, pragmatic clinical trial" with coronavirus patients, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn told reporters after Trump's briefing. German pharmaceutical giant Beyer said Thursday it is donating 3 million tablets of its chloroquine phosphate drug, Resochin, to the U.S. government for COVID-19 treatment research. Resochin is not currently approved for use in the U.S. Rising Pharmaceuticals, the only U.S. manufacturer of chloroquine, nearly doubled the drug's price on Jan. 23 — then restored the original price after an outcry, calling the price hike "coincidental," the Financial Times reports.

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Dr. Ross McKinney Jr., chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, told reporters Thursday that while chloroquine may look promising in test tubes, he's "skeptical it will be effective" in COVID-19 patients. Infectious disease experts are more optimistic about the other treatment Trump mentioned, the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir from Gilead Sciences. Remdesivir is being tested in at least five experiments.

Researchers are also experimenting with HIV medications, several treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, and the Japanese flu medicine favipiravir, The Associated Press reports. "We're looking at drugs that are already approved for other indications" as stopgap treatments, Hahn said, but "we want to make sure this is done well and right."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.