President Donald Trump and the US government’s top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci publicly sparred on Friday over whether a malaria drug would work to treat people with the coronavirus.
The extraordinary scene played out on national television during the daily White House briefing on the outbreak, in which Americans heard conflicting answers from a just-the-facts scientist and a president who operates on gut instinct.
Reporters asked both men — first Dr Fauci then Mr Trump — if a malaria drug called hydroxychloroquine could be used to prevent Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
On Thursday, when Dr Fauci was not present, Mr Trump had called attention to the drug. On Friday, Dr Fauci took the reporter’s question and got right to the point.
“No,” he said. “The answer … is no.
“The information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal,” Dr Fauci added firmly. “It was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”
He went on to explain the US Food and Drug Administration was looking for a way to make the drug available for emergency use, but in a manner that gave the government data about whether it was safe and effective.
Dr Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH and in more than 30 years has handled HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola and now the new coronavirus.
Currently, there is no medicine specifically approved for treating COVID-19.
But Mr Trump stuck to his guns. As the two men took turns at the podium, Mr Trump said he disagreed with the notion that there is no magic drug for the coronavirus disease.
“Maybe and maybe not,” he said. “Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. We have to see.”
He struck an upbeat note, while trying not to directly challenge Dr Fauci.
“I think without seeing too much, I’m probably more of a fan of that,” he said, referring to the malaria drug. “And we all understand what the doctor said is 100% correct.”
Then the president added: “It’s a strong drug. So, we’ll see.”
Hydroxychloroquine and a similar drug — chloroquine — are sold worldwide under a variety of brand and generic names. They may interfere with the coronavirus being able to enter cells, and some scientists have reported possible encouraging signs in test-tube and other small studies.
Other scientists are sceptical that those promising test-tube results will translate to benefits for patients.
Dr Fauci has a track record of being the fact-based counterpoint to the Trump administration’s upbeat assessments of the coronavirus outbreak.
Weeks ago, after he said that even with all deliberate speed a vaccine could take a year to 18 months, Mr Trump told a political rally one could be ready “relatively soon.”
As administration officials repeatedly assured the public that coronavirus tests were rapidly becoming available, Dr Fauci at a congressional hearing said the lack of widespread testing was “a failing” of the system.
Although Dr Fauci has publicly supported Mr Trump’s travel restrictions to try to keep the virus out, he warned the worst was coming even as Mr Trump suggested the crisis was under good control.
Rather than fighting with Mr Trump, he stepped up to the podium on Friday to say he was not ruling the drug out, but that it must be studied before making any promises.
But Mr Trump was not curbing his enthusiasm.
“Look, it may work and it may not work and I agree with the doctor,” the president said.
“I feel good about it. That’s all it is. Just a feeling. You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it … You’re going to see soon enough.”
The two even debated the safety of the malaria drug, with Mr Trump saying it had a proven record and Dr Fauci cautioning that must be validated again for coronavirus disease.