Speed Reads

Fever vs Cure

How hydroxychloroquine went from a tweeted Google Doc to Trump's favorite COVID-19 drug

Everyone wants a cure for COVID-19, the new coronavirus spreading around the world and causing economic and social upheaval. An effective treatment would also go a long way toward helping the world amble toward normalcy while researchers develop and test a vaccine. President Trump has put great store in hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug used now to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, but his federal health and medical advisers are skeptical.

The idea of the drug as a potential COVID-19 treatment started with Chinese reports of clinical trials, a tweet from Nigeria, and Facebook posts from France, Washington Post fact-checker Elyse Samuels recounts, but it started taking off in the U.S. when a block-chain investor tweeted a Google Doc he co-wrote exploring chloroquine's coronavirus-slaying properties — and Elon Musk retweeted it three days later, on March 16. Conservative media picked up the claims, then Fox News, and finally Trump and his close allies.

"As hype around the drugs continued, experts were wary about a lack of scientific evidence," with Dr. Anthony Fauci repeatedly noting there was nothing but "anecdotal reports" backing up the drug's claims, Samuels noted, explaining: "Anecdotal evidence is like a Yelp review, but for science." Trump argues that coronavirus patients have nothing to lose, but "there have been and will continue to be negative consequences of overpromising the drug's potential," she added. "Rumors on the internet are the least reliable source of information, and politicians are not qualified to give scientific advice, despite even the best of intentions." Watch Samuels' brief history of a would-be miracle cure, and her conversations with experts on why it probably isn't, below. Peter Weber