VA secretary fires back at critics of controversial COVID-19 treatment touted by Trump

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer asked whether vets were treated as "guinea pigs."

May 26, 2020, 8:18 PM

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie fired back at critics of his agency's use of a controversial drug touted by President Donald Trump to treat COVID-19 patients in an interview with ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz on Tuesday.

After the VA reported last week it had treated roughly 1,300 coronavirus patients with hydroxychloroquine -- a drug widely used in clinical trials that hasn't yet been shown to be effective -- Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked Friday whether veterans were being treated like "guinea pigs."

PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks at a news conference on the response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak on Capitol Hill, May 19, 2020.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks at a news conference on the response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak on Capitol Hill, May 19, 2020.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

"I find that offensive, and I'll say that as many times as I can," Wilkie said in response Tuesday. "And I will also ask Sen. Schumer ... to thank the thousands of VA employees in New York City and New York State who opened our veterans hospitals in Brooklyn and Manhattan, to take in citizens of New York, who were very sick -- citizens in New York who were not veterans."

A cursory review of the drug's use at VA hospitals earlier this year found no positive effects on COVID-19 patients. Though the review indicated a possible connection between hydroxychloroquine and higher mortality rates, the paper was inconclusive and not a peer-reviewed scientific study.

Wilkie pointed to the lack of peer review and said the paper's calling the drug's efficacy and safety as a coronavirus treatment into question were not clinical studies. He added that hydroxychloroquine was prescribed by doctors in consultation with families, often for patients who were out of options.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks on protecting Americas seniors from the COVID-19 pandemic in the East Room of the White House, April 30, 2020.
President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks on protecting Americas seniors from the COVID-19 pandemic in the East Room of the White House, April 30, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

"Many of those studies that you refer to don't look at the underlying medical conditions. In our VA, when we use this we use it with veterans who are -- in many cases -- in the last hours of life, but we also use them under FDA regimen."

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The FDA has temporarily approved the use of hydroxychloroquine -- usually prescribed for malaria, lupus and certain types of arthritis -- allowing doctors to use the drug on some COVID-19 patients. The agency urges "close patient supervision" because side effects include deadly heart rhythm problems. Clinical trials of the drug's effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment are ongoing and remain inconclusive.

Wilkie said that the VA is not currently administering the drug much, estimating 130 cases in May, out of about 1,650 active patients. But he vowed the VA will continue offering it to coronavirus patients who have no other hope.

"It might help, and as long as there's a 'might' in there, we're going to do everything we can to try," he said.

ABC News' Anne Flaherty and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.

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