Is Big Pharma behind the great war on hydroxychloroquine?

When President Trump brought up hydroxychloroquine as a promising potential treatment for COVID-19, a huge upsurge of negative political publicity followed from it.  It was strange stuff, because up until then, the treatment, which had been safely used to treat malaria, lupus, and arthritis, had been seeing promising results for COVID-19, too.  Yet the condemnations from all sides poured for weeks.  It wasn't just the political establishment blasting it; it seemed to be the medical establishment, too.  That raises questions as to whether financial interests might be involved here.

It started with the press engaging in its customary contrarianism against Trump when he called the treatment "promising."  The logic was simple: If Trump liked it, then it had to be bad.

How's this for a slanted headline and report from NPR, which ran on April 10?

COVID-19 Patients Given Unproven Drug In Texas Nursing Home In 'Disconcerting' Move

Last night, the real story was obtained by Fox News host Laura Ingraham, and it's quite a different picture.  It isn't out on YouTube yet, so I will describe it:

A Galveston-area doctor, Dr. Robin Armstrong, who was in charge of a nursing home, found himself in the middle of the worst health care nightmare anyone can imagine: a COVID-19 outbreak, on a home full of elderly people, and he was in charge.  Odds were big they were going to die.  We already know what the coronavirus did to a nursing home in Washington State, and we have subsequently learned what inserting COVID-19 patients into unwilling nursing homes in New York City did to those populations.  Coronavirus + Nursing Home = Death Sentence.  That was what he was looking at.  In desperation, the Texas doctor decided to treat his threatened patients with hydroxychloroquine in a last-ditch effort to save them...and he called it right.  Unlike those other places, his patients got well.  His informed judgment saved the lives of a building full of nursing home patients, and he reported no bad side-effects such as heart problems brought on by the treatment.  He would have been justified to take such risks because his treatment was triage, and the alternative was the death sentence.  But there wasn't even that.  His patients lived, they regained their fragile health, and there were no stacked bodies or chaotic medical scenes in his part of Texas on his watch. 

That's frankly a story of heroism, and the brilliant medical man should be celebrated for the huge number of lives he saved.

Instead, all he got were trashy stories with scare headlines like NPR's, painting him as some kind of evildoer.  Bad medicine, unproven treatment, everybody get scared.

No good deed goes unpunished.

The anti-HCQ hysteria spread much farther than the reflexively anti-Trump press — it went deep into the Trump-hating Democratic Party, which also condemned Trump's favorable mention of HCQ.  A young black Democratic state legislator from Michigan, who said the treatment most certainly helped save her life, was vilified by her own party for giving President Trump credit for mentioning it.  She said thanks, and they threatened to expel her from their party.  This, despite the ugly fact that the black community was getting hit harder by the coronavirus than others and therefore stood to gain the most from the cheap and plentiful HCQ and HCQ-antibiotic treatments.  For Democrats, hating Trump was a bigger priority, so if Trump liked the treatment, then it would be important to not just scream about it but keep it away from patients — even if they had to intimidate them. 

The political picture was strange as hell.  Who the heck should care if Trump likes a treatment or not?  If you're sick, what matters is whether a treatment is going to work and whether it's going to be safe.  That's all a COVID-19 patient, struggling to breathe on a ventilator, cares about, and while there were no big extended conclusive studies proving hydroxychroquine a panacea for treating the illness, there were many smaller studies out there and experiences that pointed to the drug's safety and effectiveness, with one showing a 91% effectiveness rate.

After all, how could a drug that had been on the market for years for the treatment of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and malaria suddenly be bad stuff, particularly since it had been used so successfully to treat COVID-19 abroad?

Yet the negative waves kept coming — at one point the New York Times argued that Trump had a stake through a mutual fund portfolio in a company that manufactured the drug — worth all of $1,300 at best, which for him is money he tips the waiters.  Even Snopes called that "mostly false."  It's also worth noting that many pharmaceuticals make the drug — Teva, Sanolfi, and Novartis are the ones that turned up in a quick Google search — and there are many generic versions, so it's a pretty cheap thing with less money to be made.

They might have been barking up the wrong tree. 

ZeroHedge wondered if Gilead, which had been developing a rival treatment, Remdesivir, might have had a hand in this negative campaign against HCQ, following a reading of an extensive report from the respected climate-skeptic blog WattsUpWithThat, which featured this post by Leo Goldstein:

I reviewed the scientific literature on hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), azithromycin (AZ), and their use for COVID-19. My conclusions:

  • HCQ-based treatments are effective in treating COVID-19, unless started too late.
  • Studies, cited in opposition, have been misinterpreted, invalid, or worse.
  • HCQ and AZ are some of the most tested and safest prescription drugs.
  • Severe COVID-19 frequently causes cardiac effects, including heart arrhythmia. QTc prolonging drugs might amplify this tendency. Millions of people regularly take drugs having strong QTc prolongation effect, and neither FDA nor CDC bother to warn them. HCQ+AZ combination, probably has a mild QTc prolongation effect. Concerns over its negative effects, however minor, can be addressed by respecting contra-indications.
  • Effectiveness of HCQ-based treatment for COVID-19 is hampered by conditions that are presented as precautions, delaying the onset of treatment. For examples, some states require that COVID-19 patients be treated with HCQ exclusively in hospital settings.
  • The COVID-19 Treatment Panel of NIH evaded disclosure of the massive financial links of its members to Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of a competing drug remdesivir. Among those who failed to disclose such links are 2 out of 3 of its co-chairs.
  • Despite all the attempts by certain authorities to prevent COVID-19 treatment with HCQ and HCQ+AZ, both components are approved by FDA, and doctors can prescribe them for COVID-19.

 By the time the National Institutes of Health issued its non-recommendation of HCQ, questions were being raised as to whether this was really about just hating Trump. I wrote about that here.

Because along with the NIH's non-recommendation for HCQ (which wasn't as bad as the press touted, but enough for a round of negative media stories), there also was an enthusiastic NIH recommendation in late April for Gilead's Remdesivir, same company the NIH directors had a lot of conflicts of interest in. 

Take that, Trump! Except that Trump issued high praise for that drug too, and that didn't set off a barrage of negative press stories the way HCQ did.

Maybe there was something to the NIH conflicts of interest which just happened to coincide with NIH praise for Gilead:

For one thing, NPR reported that Gilead had ramped up its big lobbying operations to "hit a new high" to promote that drug

Gilead Sciences, the drugmaker behind the experimental COVID-19 treatment remdesivir, spent more on lobbying Congress and the administration in the first quarter of 2020 than it ever has before, according to federal filings.

The pharmaceutical company spent $2.45 million on lobbying in the first three months of the year, a 32% increase over the $1.86 million it spent in the first quarter of 2019.

Meanwhile, one Harvard medical professor, Dr. William Haseltine, wrote in a column in Forbes that he found reason for skepticism about that effusive praise for Gilead's newly developed treatment.

Enthusiasm for remsdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19 has escalated since the NIH announcement of results. But as I wrote yesterday, the data for the NIH study has not been publicly released or peer reviewed, meaning that we should continue to exercise extreme caution when considering its use against COVID-19.

Which if he's right, would make NIH look pretty conflicted of interest indeed.

Does that stuff go on? One company strives to badmouth one medically developed treatment so that its own expensively developed own treatment might be used instead? 

I know that when I wrote a story about vaping in 2016 which ran in the New York Observer, I was surprised to learn that Big Pharma more than anyone was seeking to put small kitchen-table vaping operations, which helped smokers quit smoking, out of business, calling them irresponsible and dangerous. The preponderance of evidence, though, suggested their real reason was to promote their own smoking cessation drugs, and petty vaping companies needed to be stomped out because they were cutting into market share. Significantly, these lobbies worked with Democrats who know how to politicize a cause.

There's no smoking gun at this point, but there are a lot of circumstantials that might just point to a big campaign to stomp out an inexpensive and de-centralized rival. If so, it's another manifestation of the swamp going against the interests of the little guy. It's why Trump is always a lightning rod for establishment fury and if that's not an endorsement for the little guy's voting choice, what is?