The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is giving veterans with coronavirus hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug turned experimental treatment for COVID-19, said New York Senator Chuck Schumer. In recent weeks, the drug has been heavily favored by President Donald Trump, who is purportedly taking it himself.
Schumer began probing the VA’s use of the drug earlier this month, saying on May 10th that the VA needed to provide Congress with more information about a recent bulk order for $208,000 worth of hydroxychloroquine. In response to Schumer’s questions, the VA revealed that it has administered the drug to some 1,300 veterans with COVID-19 at VA facilities across the country and is using it in ongoing clinical trials.
“Why the heck is the VA using our vets, who are so important, who have risked their lives for us, in a test that could be really harmful to them?” Schumer asked at a press conference Friday.
Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan have a medical center under the Veterans Administration while Queens and Staten Island have VA-sponsored living facilities.
Politicizing the use of hydroxychloroquine has become something of a national pastime in recent months. Although Trump has hyped the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, the drug has not yet been proven to be safe or effective in treating COVID-19 patients, according to the Federal Drug Administration.
Still, Schumer’s outrage appears to be selective. The FDA has said that hydroxychloroquine can be used in a hospital setting or in the context of clinical trials. There are various clinical trials currently underway that continue to explore the potential benefits and harms of the drug for treating and preventing COVID-19. And the VA is far from the only health care provider that continues to give it to COVID-19 patients, although it seems others may be limiting its use.
“At NYU Langone Health, hydroxychloroquine is still utilized on a limited basis as part of inpatient care for COVID-19,” a spokesman for that health system told Gothamist Friday. “Most patients who receive it do so under clinical trials to study the drug on its own and in combination with other medications. However, a limited number of patients do receive it outside of clinical trials.”
Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he also condemns other clinical trials and the use of hydroxychloroquine in non-VA hospitals.
Schumer attributed much of his outrage to the lack of information about the use of the drug outside the context of clinical trials and the lack of information about the trials themselves. The VA New York Harbor Healthcare System, which operates local VA facilities, did not respond to a request for comment on its use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 patients Friday afternoon.
“This automatically just raises more questions than we’ve received answers for and I think that’s the central issue here,” said James Fitzgerald, deputy director of the NYC Veterans Alliance. “This seems to be a continuation of our call as a community for more transparency in the VA system.”
Although randomized, controlled trials are considered the gold standard of scientific research, evidence from other types of studies is piling up against the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.
A data analysis published Friday in the research journal The Lancet noted that hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine “are being widely used for treatment of COVID-19, despite no conclusive evidence of their benefit.”
The researchers analyzed data on more than 96,000 patients with COVID-19 who were admitted to 671 hospitals around the world, comparing those who were given chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine and those who were not. In some cases, patients were also given a macrolide, a type of antibiotic. “Each of these drug regimens was associated with decreased in-hospital survival and an increased frequency of ventricular arrhythmias when used for treatment of COVID-19,” the study found.
An observational study of patients at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irvine Medical Center in Washington Heights, that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that treatment with hydroxychloroquine had no significant impact on the risk of intubation or death. “Randomized, controlled trials of hydroxychloroquine in patients with COVID-19 are needed,” the researchers concluded.
Schumer has objected to veterans being used as “guinea pigs” and questioned whether the VA is keeping patients informed about the potential risks of the drug, which include a dangerously rapid heart rate.
“VA continues to keep patients and families informed about possible side effects that have been linked to hydroxychloroquine, as with any other medical intervention,” the VA said in a written response to Schumer’s questions.
The VA objected to Schumer’s description of the drug as “experimental,” saying it is simply being prescribed off-label, as some other drugs are, “with proper safety monitors and precautions taken.”
The VA says that its use of hydroxychloroquine has been in line with the federal Right to Try Act, which gives patients with life-threatening conditions access to certain investigational treatments.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie defended the continued use of hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 patients in an interview on “Fox & Friends First” on Thursday.
“We used it with veterans who were in the last hours of life in the hopes that it would prolong that life and we will continue to do that under FDA guidelines, which we have been following,” Wilkie said.
Trump has also said that he has taken hydroxychloroquine himself and Wilkie asserted, “We’re not going to take risks with the life of the president of the United States.”
Schumer asked the VA point blank whether the president’s affinity for hydroxychloroquine affected its usage of the drug.
“Were you or any official at the VA ever pressured by the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services or any other agencies to use hydroxychloroquine on veteran patients for the treatment of COVID-19?” Schumer asked.
The VA countered, “The idea that VA health care providers would make treatment decisions based on anything other than the best medical interests of our patients as individuals is preposterous.”