For weeks in 2020, as his administration failed to control a surging pandemic, President Donald Trump used his office to promote the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment despite a lack of evidence of its effectiveness. Trump’s continual promotion led to weeks of speculation and controversy regarding the president’s motivations and the effects his endorsement would have on the drug’s supply.
Records published this week by American Oversight reveal communications from these early weeks of the pandemic in which prominent television hosts Dr. Mehmet Oz and Laura Ingraham contacted officials leading the federal pandemic response to request favors or information about hydroxychloroquine trials. The emails, which were obtained by American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act requests, were also publicly released last week by the Food and Drug Administration, and reported on by Endpoint News.
Trump first touted hydroxychloroquine on March 19, 2020, when he declared that it was a “very powerful” potential coronavirus treatment. There was no scientific evidence supporting his claims; in fact, when asked at a White House press conference the very next day whether the drug was promising, Dr. Anthony Fauci replied, “The answer is no.” But Trump’s promotion continued, with him even claiming in May 2020 that he had taken the medication himself.
Despite the fact that multiple studies had found the drug had no positive impact and the FDA had cautioned against using it outside of a hospital setting, Trump’s endorsement fueled media publicity of the drug, and Fox News hosts mentioned it hundreds of times on air during the spring.
One frequent guest on Fox News was Dr. Mehmet Oz, whom the New York Times reported in April of last year had been in touch with the White House “about expediting approval to use the drug for the coronavirus.” The records obtained by American Oversight include an email sent by Oz on March 22, in which Oz informed then-White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx that he was starting a trial to test the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. Oz wrote that he needed supplies of the medication: “The President should sequester these medications for clinical trials like ours. Can you help us?”
In her reply, Birx said guidelines were forthcoming on “this essential issue.” In a reply, Oz asked again about the shortage. Birx then shared the CDC’s public guidance on the clinical use of hydroxychloroquine, which she said had been posted on the CDC website the day before.
Oz replied, “Can we at least get batches of drugs for a hundred trial patients? If you don’t wish to put in writing, please call but I need guidance for my show and dozens of media interviews that I am doing tomorrow.”
Birx forwarded this email to then-FDA Administrator Stephen Hahn and then-CDC Director Robert Redfield. She and Hahn set up a call to discuss the issue, with Hahn saying, “I have lots of data on this.”
Birx also asked Oz for more details on the trial. Oz replied that it would be held at New York Presbyterian Hospital and that Columbia University Professor Ian Lipkin (whom he characterized as “close to Dr Fauci”) was leading the effort. Oz wrote that he would “personally recruit patients and pay for trial. … We just need drugs.”
Birx replied, “Thank you. Yes I know Ian. He is an icon in our field.” She also said that she was working on getting more information about whether the drugs were available, but that Oz would “be able to get more direct information from [the manufacturers than] I can today.”
Oz responded that only the federal government could accelerate the supply chain. The next day, he updated Birx, “I found hydroxychloroquine in Washington (of all places) so we are set for our NYC clinical trial.”
That day, Oz appeared on Fox News and called upon the White House Coronavirus Task Force to “get us these pills.” After Oz’s appearance, then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Fox viewers that hydroxychloroquine was not a verified treatment.
Oz contacted Birx again on March 28 to ask about the details of a different hydroxychloroquine trial occurring in New York. Birx forwarded the email to Hahn. That same day, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization (which was later revoked) to allow hydroxychloroquine to be distributed to patients hospitalized with Covid-19.
Additional documents show Oz was not alone in requesting federal help with obtaining hydroxychloroquine. On April 7, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, told presidential adviser Jared Kushner that the state needed more than 1 million doses of the drug for a study. Kushner forwarded the message to Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who asked Robert Farmer, an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to make a call. South Dakota’s hydroxychloroquine trial was discontinued in June 2020.
Other media personalities also contacted White House officials. On April 7, Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked then-White House Associate Director Molly Michael questions about a hydroxychloroquine trial that was taking place in New York (at the time, New York state was running at least two hydroxychloroquine trials). She wrote, “Please tell POTUS this is worth a call from someone in his staff to New York’s Health Commissioner Mr. Zucker.”
Hahn forwarded this message to Joe Grogan, then-director of the Domestic Policy Council, saying that Ingraham’s facts about the New York trial were incorrect. Grogran replied, “sheesh.”
Two weeks later, Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, forwarded Hahn an email from presidential adviser Hope Hicks regarding hydroxychloroquine trials. “[Gov. Andrew] Cuomo said today, over 20 hospitals conducted hydroxychloroquine trials, report of results will go to the FDA and CDC today,” Hicks wrote. Hahn replied to Miller, “Let’s talk.”
The communications also show that officials kept track of news related to hydroxychloroquine and knew by April that Trump’s claims lacked scientific backing. On April 21, Miller sent Hahn an article about hydroxychloroquine titled, “More deaths, no benefit from malaria drug in VA virus study.” Just two days later, the FDA issued a warning detailing the risks associated with hydroxychloroquine use, but did not revoke its authorization until June.
Part of Investigation: