On Friday, July 31, in a column ostensibly dealing with health care “misinformation,” Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan opened by lambasting “fringe doctors spouting dangerous falsehoods about hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 wonder cure.”
Actually, it was Sullivan who was spouting dangerous falsehoods about this drug, something the Washington Post and much of the rest of the media have been doing for months. On May 15, the Post offered a stark warning to any Americans who may have taken hope in a possible therapy for COVID-19. In the newspaper’s telling, there was nothing unambiguous about the science — or the politics — of hydroxychloroquine: “Drug promoted by Trump as coronavirus game-changer increasingly linked to deaths,” blared the headline. Written by three Post staff writers, the story asserted that the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19 is scant and that the drug is inherently unsafe. This claim is nonsense.
Biased against the use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 — and the Washington Post is hardly alone — the paper described an April 21, 2020, drug study on U.S. Veterans Affairs patients hospitalized with the illness. It found a high death rate in patients taking the drug hydroxychloroquine. But this was a flawed study with a small sample, the main flaw being that the drug was given to the sickest patients who were already dying because of their age and severe pre-existing conditions. This study was quickly debunked. It had been posted on a non-peer-reviewed medical archive that specifically warns that studies posted on its website should not be reported in the media as established information.
Yet, the Post and countless other news outlets did just the opposite, making repeated claims that hydroxychloroquine was ineffective and caused serious cardiac problems. Nowhere was there any mention of the fact that COVID-19 damages the heart during infection, sometimes causing irregular and sometimes fatal heart rhythms in patients not taking the drug.
To a media unrelentingly hostile to Donald Trump, this meant that the president could be portrayed as recklessly promoting the use of a “dangerous” drug. Ignoring the refutation of the VA study in its May 15 article, the Washington Post cited a Brazil study published on April 24 in which a COVID trial using chloroquine (a related but different drug than hydroxychloroquine) was stopped because 11 patients treated with it died. The reporters never mentioned another problem with that study: The Brazilian doctors were giving their patients lethal cumulative doses of the drug.
On and on it has gone since then, in a circle of self-reinforcing commentary. Following the news that Trump was taking the drug himself, opinion hosts on cable news channels launched continual attacks on both hydroxychloroquine and the president. “This will kill you!” Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto exclaimed. “The president of the United States just acknowledge that he is taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug that [was] meant really to treat malaria and lupus.”
Washington Post reporters Ariana Cha and Laurie McGinley were back again on May 22, with a new article shouting out the new supposed news: “Antimalarial drug touted by President Trump is linked to increased risk of death in coronavirus patients, study says.” The media uproar this time was based on a large study just published in the Lancet. There was just one problem. The Lancet paper was fraudulent and it was quickly retracted.
However, the damage from the biased media storm was done and it was long-lasting. Continuing patient enrollment needed for early-use clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine dried up within a week. Patients were afraid to take the drug, doctors became afraid to prescribe it, pharmacies refused to fill prescriptions, and in a rush of incompetent analysis and non-existent senior leadership, the FDA revoked its Emergency Use Authorization for the drug.