How a drug became an object lesson in political tribalism.
On January 29 the Hubei Daily, a state-owned Chinese newspaper based in Wuhan, reported on a promising development. Teams of researchers associated with the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences and the Wuhan Institute of Virology had tested dozens of existing pharmaceuticals for possible efficacy against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They had identified three antiviral drugs that seemed to inhibit the virus from reproducing or infecting other cells in a test tube.
Within a week the highly regarded journal Cell Research published a peer-reviewed letter by researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that reported on two of these in more detail: chloroquine, developed in the 1930s to treat malaria, and remdesivir, a newer drug developed for Ebola. Within days Chinese researchers announced new clinical studies to test these drugs in patients, along with another antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, which is derived from chloroquine and is generally considered safer. The science has continued apace, and results of most of the clinical studies are still pending.
In the meantime, something strange happened. It started with a series of tweets. On March 11 an Australian entrepreneur living in China tweeted at a Bitcoin investor that chloroquine would “keep most people out of hospital.” That investor then co-authored and shared a document making the case for chloroquine. On March 16 Elon Musk began tweeting about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and shared that document.
Two days later Tucker Carlson did a segment on Fox News discussing these drugs with one of the document’s co-authors. That same day, March 19, President Trump gave a press conference in which he announced that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine had shown “very, very encouraging” early results. Since then, Trump has repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 miracle drug.