'Our mission is to preserve and protect life.'
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.
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 last 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.
Wilkie said Thursday that he expected the VA to continue using the drug in limited forms such as clinical trials, based in part on the guidance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-diseases expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force.
That answer drew a rebuke from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), chair of the appropriations committee, who said the VA should have been listening to Fauci's counsel urging caution on the drug from the start.
"I hope VA will respond to the science that is clearly coming from Dr. Fauci, rather than some wishful thinking coming from the president," Lowey said.
No large, rigorous studies have found hydroxychloroquine safe or effective for COVID-19, and it can cause heart rhythm problems and other serious side effects. The Food and Drug Administration has warned against the drug and said hydroxychloroquine should only be used for the coronavirus in formal studies.
The VA has said it prescribed the drug only when medically appropriate, after full discussion between doctor and patient about the risks.