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Schumer asks VA why it's using hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrives for a news

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrives for a news conference in Manhattan on Sunday. Credit: Charles Eckert

Sen. Chuck Schumer asked the Department of Veterans Affairs on Sunday to explain why it continues to use hydroxychloroquine to treat patients with the coronavirus, saying the anti-malaria drug is not only ineffective in treating COVID-19 but has also been linked to life-threatening cardiac arrests.

Schumer (D-N.Y.) also demanded to know why the agency recently spent $208,000 for a bulk purchase of hydroxychloroquine, which President Donald Trump and his allies have pushed, without scientific evidence, as a treatment for the coronavirus.

The Senate minority leader questioned whether veterans have been clandestinely given the drug.

“When it comes to the testing and treatment of vets with these chloroquine drugs, including hydroxychloroquine, families are left with more questions than answers,” Schumer said at a news conference in Manhattan on Sunday.

“The VA needs to provide full details on the recent bulk order, the status of any testing and the notification process to families,” Schumer added. “Recent actions by the VA have spurred serious questions and the fact that the VA has yet to answer them is deeply concerning. If vets are being given this risky drug, New York families — and all families — have a right to know what is going on and what’s intended for the future.”

Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman, said Sunday in an email: “In certain cases, medical providers and patients want to try hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, and FDA guidance, which VA follows, permits that.  This is exactly the same principle Congress affirmed when it passed the Right to Try Act. VA only permits use of the drug after ensuring Veterans and caretakers are aware of potential risks associated with it, as we do with any other drug or treatment.” 

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She said the VA has used hydroxychloroquine to treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other disorders for years, and that the bulk of the recent order would be used for those purposes.

Former Health and Human Services official Rick Bright alleged in a whistleblower complaint filed last week that the Trump administration wanted to flood New York and New Jersey with the drug. Bright claimed he was demoted because he resisted promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine because there was little scientific evidence that suggested its effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment.

In a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, Schumer pointed out that the FDA has issued a warning about hydroxychloroquine. Schumer said the FDA believes the drug is not effective for preventing or treating the coronavirus and said that patients who suffer from heart and kidney conditions could be at increased risk.

Wilkie has denied that vets have been clandestinely administered the drug, but he had declined to say how widely the drug has been used.

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Veterans groups have also expressed concerns about the use of hydroxychloroquine in VA hospitals.

“We request the immediate halt of this drug for our veterans until further information on its true impact is determined,” Veterans of Foreign Wars national commander William Schmitz told The Washington Post this month.

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