After her admission to the hospital, my cousin was treated with plaquenil. That’s the trade name for hydroxychloroquine, the milder version of the chloroquine medication that the White House seems determined to make famous. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t asked if she wanted it; she was just given it, in the same way that she was given oxygen and water. If you, God forbid, should find yourself in the hospital tomorrow, you, too, might become acquainted with plaquenil.
Morristown Hospital is not staffed by witch doctors. If they gave my cousin plaquenil, that’s a pretty good indication that belief in its potential usefulness has penetrated the medical mainstream. It is not by nature an antiviral medication — as you probably know, it’s used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. But as I’ve learned over the past two years, drugs often have powerful secondary effects. If one of those incidental effects slows the progression of the respiratory symptoms that accompany the coronavirus, that’d be a wonderful thing.
Yet at the risk of ruining a perfectly good placebo, I admit I’m not sold. This not entirely because of the somewhat unconvincing arguments made by the thoroughly unconvincing people pushing the drug. It’s also because I’ve become painfully familiar with the way that medical trials work, and the evidence that’s required by scientists before a treatment is accepted as justifiable, let alone helpful. Sometimes epidemiologists really do locate a magic bullet — the mold on the bread that becomes the penicillin that stops the bacterium in its tracks. More often, especially with antiviral medications, results are inconclusive, and hyperbole only serves to confuse and disorient the public. Especially in a crisis, the burden of proof always rests on the shoulders of those raising expectations.
The biggest problem with the chloroquine hypothesis isn’t the lack of clinical trials. It’s that an inadvertent test has already occurred. If plaquenil had an ameliorative effect, we’d expect it to protect lupus and arthritis sufferers — those already on chloroquine, in other words — from the effects of the coronavirus. That hasn’t happened. Those on plaquenil are still getting sick. It’s possible that a course of hydroxychloroquine taken upon admittance to the hospital might help a patient who’d never taken the medicine before, but now we’re twisting ourselves into logical pretzels to help the drug that ought to be helping us.
It also isn’t too comforting that nobody can explain what it is about plaquenil that might make it effective against the coronavirus. Some supporters have hazarded guesses that hydroxychloroquine’s suppressive effect on the immune system might calm the cytokine storms — the overactive immune responses, in other words — that do immense damage to human respiratory systems. But hospitalized people are privy to infections. A drug that alters the immune systems of the seriously ill is a tough pill to swallow.
The Kiryas Joel doctor most closely associated with chloroquine likens his protocol, which also includes zinc and an antibiotic, to battlefield medicine: in a warzone, doctors don’t have time to conduct trials, and must rely on their intuitions instead. I understand that, and I can sympathize with his urgency. But I notice that that same doctor was, not so long ago, a crisis minimizer — one of the many pushing those black-letter memes on social media meant to deflect blame for America’s slow response from the current administration. Meaningfully, at least for me, Dr. Fauci has been skeptical about chloroquine, and has thrown cold water on some of the President’s overheated rhetoric. In general, the minimizers have been wrong, and Fauci has been right.
Fauci’s skepticism has gotten him in hot water with the venomous fringe of the administration’s loyalists. Some of them have decided that he’s part of a nebulous plot against chloroquine, and he’s dedicated himself to obstructing the rollout of a medication that he knows is effective. There are those who believe that the coronavirus was cooked up in a lab by 1.) Chinese bio-warriors hellbent on the destruction of America, or 2.) Bill Gates, who is poised to roll out a proprietary vaccine that will be made mandatory by evil governments. If hydroxychloroquine plus zinc plus zithromax is a winning combination, that means Gates is out of luck; therefore he and Fauci and other deep-state operatives are trying to expunge the remedy from popular consciousness.
The people — and there are many of them — who hold these opinions tend to be absolutely certain, so I’m not inclined to try to bring them around. Instead, I’ll just point out that nothing about the coronavirus seems lab-made. It isn’t a combination of known viruses spliced together and artificially forced to mutate. It’s novel, and that’s exactly what makes it so scary. If it’s a bioweapon, it’s a poor one; one that acts randomly, and can’t easily be contained or aimed at enemies, one capable of sending world leaders to the ICU. Its unpredictability belies claims of its human authorship.
I am old enough to remember the early years of the AIDS crisis, and the constant claims of miracle breakthroughs that were about to send HIV into a tailspin. Megadoses of Vitamin C, we were told in the late ’80s, might turn the trick; soon, we could all return to our promiscuous ways. There were reports of drugs in development, pharmaceutical wizardry in the pipeline, palliatives and knockout punches to be delivered. Yet HIV is still with us. Viruses, it turns out, aren’t easy to eliminate. I hope, desperately, that the doctor in Kiryas Joel is right, and his fans in the administration and mass media are justified in their near-superstitious belief in chloroquine, and we can start clearing the pneumonia from the lungs of the sick, and restart American society. A more likely outcome: a class-action suit, right in the laps of the executives at Fox News.