HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Trump Says He’s Taking Anti-Malaria Drug

President Donald Trump said that he’s currently taking hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug he’s promoted as a treatment to fight a coronavirus infection.

Trump said yesterday at the White House that he has been taking the drug for a week. Medical experts have cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine as the benefits against coronavirus were not proven and the treatment could carry significant negative health side effects.

The FDA on April 24 cautioned against the use of the drug or its cousin, chloroquine, for Covid-19 outside of a hospital setting or in a clinical trial, citing a risk of heart rhythm problems.

Trump said he began the treatment about a week and a half ago. That course would have followed revelations that an official in the White House had tested positive for the virus. Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, tested positive for coronavirus May 8. Trump wasn’t seen in Pence’s company following the diagnosis until yesterday, when the vice president joined him for the meeting with restaurateurs.

When taken by healthy patients on its own, hydroxychloroquine has a relatively well-established profile and is considered low-risk. In several trials of severely ill patients with Covid-19, it has been shown to raise heart risks and rates of death when combined with the antibiotic azithromycin. The drug is known to interfere with the heart’s electrical signals in extremely rare cases, and can cause death.

The drug is also being studied as a preventive, under the theory that the malaria pill might work for the new coronavirus, as well. While over 100 clinical trials are ongoing, there’s been little solid clinical evidence to back it.

Last night, the White House distributed a memo from Sean Conley, Trump’s physician, about the decision to take the medication. Conley said after “numerous discussions” with the president about the pros and cons of taking hydroxychloroquine, “we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.” Justin Sink has more.

Happening on the Hill

House Dems Want Covid-19 Contract Answers from Blue Flame Medical: House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats moved forward with their probe of Blue Flame Medical, which was first announced last week.

Chairman Frank Pallone (N.J.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.), the leader of the panel’s oversight subcommittee, sent a letter yesterday to Mike Gula—a former GOP fundraiser and co-founder of Blue Flame—asking questions surrounding allegations that the company has failed to fulfill its contracts with state and local governments or government entities.

Although California and Maryland have canceled their contracts with the firm, an attorney for the company contends it plans to make good on delivering the equipment. Blue Flame has until June 1 to reply.

The medical supply and personal protective equipment company, which is also under investigation by the Justice Department, was founded in March by two Republican operatives. Read the letter here.

Senators Unveil Bipartisan Plan to Aid States: A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill yesterday that would establish a $500 billion account to aid state and local governments in coping with the impact of the coronavirus crisis. Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) first unveiled plans for a relief package for state and local governments last month. They have added on two more Republicans to the effort: Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.) and Susan Collins (Maine) with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) as co-sponsors.

Under the legislation, the aid would be divided into three tranches and handed out according to population, infection rates, and revenue losses. Their bill does not have a population requirement, meaning municipalities of any size can use the funds it makes available. All states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico would receive a minimum of $2 billion under the plan.

A companion measure has been unveiled in the House by Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.), Daniel Flatley reports.

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Testing, Vaccine & Reopening Efforts

Moderna Vaccine Test Shows Promise: An experimental vaccine from the U.S. biotechnology company Moderna showed signs it can create an immune-system response to fend off the new coronavirus, offering tentative hopes in the global effort to combat the pandemic. The results are only one sample from the small, first study designed to examine the safety of the vaccine in human volunteers and should be viewed with caution. But they showed no major safety worries, a key first hurdle, since such vaccine would be given to millions of healthy people.

“This is a very good sign that we make an antibody that can stop the virus from replicating,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said in an interview yesterday. The data “couldn’t have been better,” he said. The company is moving forward with plans for a wider test to pick a dose of the vaccine and further study its efficacy, as well as a Phase 3 test with thousands of patients. Robert Langreth has more.

Xi Vows China Will Share Vaccine: Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to make any Covid-19 vaccine universally available when it’s developed, part of an effort to defuse criticisms of his government’s response to the pandemic. In a speech yesterday before the World Health Assembly—the governing body of the WHO—Xi pushed for greater global cooperation in fighting the virus and said Beijing will provide $2 billion over two years to support the fight.

China has come under fire from the U.S., European Union and Australia over its initial handling of the outbreak and subsequent heavy-handed response to any criticism. Xi’s full-fledged support for the WHO contrasts with the White House’s move to suspend U.S. funding for the organization after accusing it of being too conciliatory toward China. Read more from Corinne Gretler.

  • White House National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot later said in a statement that China’s $2 billion pledge is merely a “token to distract” from Beijing’s failure to warn the world about the outbreak. “As the source of the outbreak, China has a special responsibility to pay more and to give more,” Ullyot said, Ben Livesey and Justin Sink report.

Guidelines for Reopening Nursing Homes: The Trump administration issued guidance that would eventually allow nursing homes to re-open to visitors—on a phased-in basis—nationwide. The guidance recommends that all nursing home staff and residents are tested for exposure to the coronavirus before restrictions are relaxed or facilities reopened. It also recommends that state agencies inspect nursing homes that had a Covid-19 outbreak before allowing reopening, according to a statement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The CMS guidelines say that nursing homes should be among the last to reopen within communities that are emerging from lockdowns, Tony Pugh reports.

Stockpile Plan Wants Makers, Sellers to Store Virus Supplies: The Department of Health and Human Services is looking for input from companies on how it should restructure and resupply the Strategic National Stockpile. The department has put out a request for information that outlines its plan for making sure there are enough ventilators, personal protective equipment, testing supplies, and other items needed for a Covid-19-like pandemic. Read more from Shira Stein.

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What Else to Know

Trump Threatens WHO With Permanent Cutoff of U.S. Funds: Trump escalated his threats against the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying he would permanently cut U.S. funding if it does not make sweeping reforms. In a four-page letter detailing his many grievances with the WHO, Trump called on the group to “demonstrate independence from China,” renewing a complaint that led him in April to temporarily suspend U.S. funding. He posted the letter late Monday on Twitter.

“If the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization,” Trump wrote to Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Read more from Jordan Fabian and Nick Wadhams.

Virus Hacks Risk Security Updates at Schools: With more researchers moving from the laboratory to their living room couches, now is the time for universities and other institutions combating the coronavirus outbreak to take a close, hard look at their cybersecurity strategies. Chinese hackers are interested in stealing research on vaccines and treatments for the virus, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency recently said. Universities and other research institutions should assess their information technology systems and training to ensure they are protected, cybersecurity experts say. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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