Another week, another miracle cure.
On Sunday night, U.S. President Donald Trump was at it again, claiming a “historic breakthrough in our fight against the China virus.”
This time he was touting convalescent plasma, issuing an emergency authorization that allows for the drug to be used without having to go through the normal regulatory process to demonstrate it is safe and effective.
This time around, the President claimed that antibody-rich plasma (which is harvested from people who have recovered from COVID-19) “is proven to reduce mortality by 35 per cent.”
To make matters worse, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration went along with the charade. Its press release described convalescent plasma as a “potential promising COVID-19 treatment” and “another achievement in the administration’s fight against the pandemic.”
That is a new low for the once-respected agency, whose scientists know full well that the claim that plasma treatments cut the death rate by 35 per cent is unsubstantiated nonsense.
In fact, a study conducted at the Mayo Clinic, which included 35,000 patients, found that those who received a transfusion of convalescent plasma within three days of diagnosis had a death rate of 8.7 per cent, while those who received the same treatment after four or more days had a mortality rate of 11.9 per cent.
Did plasma save lives when given earlier? Maybe. But those treated early were not chosen randomly, and we have no idea what the death rate was among those who did not get treatment. We know that plasma collected from COVID-19 survivors is rich in antibodies, but we don’t know if those antibodies are neutralizing, meaning they can block infection or lessen the harms.
That’s why clinical trials are important: They help us figure out the effectiveness and safety of treatments. One of those important trials is under way in Canada. Paradoxically, the emergency authorization will make it far more difficult to do those studies because plasma can now be prescribed willy-nilly.
But Mr. Trump is in a hurry. His administration has launched Operation Warp Speed to get treatments and vaccines to market as rapidly as possible. That process, however, has become so politicized that it is a menace.
The promotion of dubious drugs is only a beginning. What Mr. Trump really wants is to approve a vaccine before the Nov. 3 presidential election so he can claim victory over COVID-19 despite his abysmal handling of the pandemic since Day 1. (The U.S now has almost 5.8 million confirmed cases and 180,000 deaths.)
While a vaccine is desperately needed to control the pandemic, the only thing worse than no vaccine would be one that is ineffective or harmful. It’s far more important to get it right than do it quickly. We need strong clinical evidence, not artificial election day deadlines.
There’s a certain irony in Mr. Trump, who has often aligned himself with anti-vaccine activists and other conspiracy theorists, now counting on a vaccine to be his golden ticket to re-election.
But don’t be fooled. The President is staunchly anti-science. He doesn’t want a vaccine as much as he wants his followers to swallow whatever pablum he is serving them.
During the previous presidential campaign, Mr. Trump made journalists the enemy, with his destructive rhetoric about “fake news.”
His latest tactic is to undermine scientific expertise for partisan political purposes. In the Trumpian world, everyone’s opinion is equally valid, no matter how ill-informed or self-serving.
When the President routinely promotes drugs, or suggests people should inject bleach, when he uses racist terms such as “China virus,” or when he calls the coronavirus pandemic a hoax, it is all part-and-parcel of an egregious pattern of ignoring, sidelining and undermining science and research.
On the weekend, Mr. Trump showed his true colours, attacking the FDA (the agency that was bullied into the convalescent plasma announcement) as part of the “deep state” bureaucracy that is trying to undermine his re-election.
Politics are not holding up better COVID-19 treatments. If anything, politics are pushing people to embrace unproven and potentially dangerous treatments.
The President claims to be cutting red tape, but his bumbling forays into medical prescribing are much more sinister.
His snake oil salesman approach is not about getting better treatments to people, it’s craven politicking that undermines the scientific enterprise and erodes democracy.
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