WASHINGTON – Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Thursday that his department has all but stopped use of an unproven malaria drug on veterans with COVID-19.
At a House hearing, he defended initial use of hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients as justified “to give them hope,” given few treatment options at the time. But Wilkie said that government-run VA hospitals have “ratcheted it down” — to just three prescriptions in the last week — as studies pointed to possible dangers and other possible treatments were brought online. "I expect that trend to continue in the future,” he added.
President Donald Trump has heavily pitched the drug — even saying in recent days he had been taking it to prevent coronavirus infection — without scientific evidence of its effectiveness.
“We are all learning as we go in this crisis,” Wilkie told a House appropriations subcommittee. “Our mission is to preserve and protect life.”
The department, which is the nation's largest hospital system, has recently been turning to remdesivir. Preliminary results from a major study found reduced recovery time, as well as convalescent plasma.
According to the VA's website, 13,657 veterans have been infected with the coronavirus, and 1,200 have died.
Major veterans organizations had called on the VA to explain its use of hydroxychloroquine after an analysis of VA hospital data was published month showing hundreds of veterans who took the drug saw no benefit for COVID-19. About 28% of veterans who were given hydroxychloroquine plus usual care died, versus 11% of those getting routine care alone.
VA data provided Thursday to Congress show that weekly prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine surged from about two in mid-March to a peak of 404 about two weeks later as Trump began promoting its use. They remained at higher levels before tapering off in late April amid backlash over results of the VA hospital analysis and as remdesivir emerged as a form of treatment. In all, 1,370 veterans were prescribed hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19.