Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday criticized President Donald Trump’s decision to take the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus prevention, saying it sends a dangerous message to the country.
“At this point to take a drug that has no effectiveness or no known effectiveness, but potential harm, just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Shulkin said during an interview on CNN. “I’m concerned about the way that this is probably being discussed and that other Americans may believe that this is now safe to do.
“And this clearly is not safe.”
Shulkin, who worked as a physician and health care system administrator before joining VA in 2015, served as Trump’s top veterans official from 2017 to March 2018, when the president fired him for unspecified reasons.
Since then, Shulkin has been a high-profile voice on numerous public health issues and written a book on the tumultuous behind-the-scenes operations of the Trump administration, although he has offered muted criticism of the president himself.
But he blasted Trump’s decision to take hydroxychloroquine — which recent studies have indicated offers little protection from the fast-spreading coronavirus and may cause serious health complications — as a “patient driven” decision not based in science.
“Normally if you press your doctor for something and they really think it's not a good idea for you to take (it), they're not going to prescribe it,” he said. “But if you're the president and you say to your doctor ‘I really want to take this,’ how does that play out?”
Trump has touted the drug as a potential cure or vaccine for coronavirus, which has infected more than 1.5 million Americans in the last three months. But numerous scientific studies have cast doubt on his assertions, and the Food and Drug Administration has recommended “extreme caution” with use and prescription of the drug.
In April, a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found higher rates of death among patients with coronavirus who used hydroxychloroquine than those on other treatments.
On Tuesday, Trump called those findings “a phony study put out by the VA” and called criticism surrounding the medicine a political-based attack.
“I think it's worth it as a line of defense,” he told reporters. “And I'll stay on it for a little while longer.”
Hydroxychloroquine is used in the military to prevent malaria, but Shulkin said the medicine’s use there isn’t comparable to use by the general public.
“That's done mostly in young healthy adults who are going into the military, which is very different than many people today who are out there concerned about getting COVID-19,” he said.
Shulkin added that he worries the impact of the illness on veterans may be underestimated.
“There are 20 million veterans in this country and the Department of Veteran Affairs is reporting that there are 1,000 deaths,” he said.
“My concern is is that there are many more veterans suffering, there are many more veterans that need help … we have to make sure that we’re looking out and protecting all of our veterans in this country.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.