After months of touting an unproven anti-malaria drug as a treatment for the new coronavirus, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is turning himself into a test case live before millions of people as he swallows hydroxychloroquine pills on social media and encourages others to do the same. Bolsonaro said this week that he tested positive for the virus but already felt better thanks to hydroxychloroquine. Hours later he shared a video of himself gulping down what he said was his third dose.
“I trust hydroxychloroquine,” he said, smiling. “And you?” On Wednesday, he was again extolling the drug’s benefits on Facebook, and claimed that his political opponents were rooting against it. A string of studies in Britain and the United States, as well as by the World Health Organisation, have found chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine ineffective against COVID-19 and sometimes deadly because of their adverse side effects on the heart. Several studies were cancelled early because of adverse effects.
US President Donald Trump has promoted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 but chloroquine — a more toxic version of the drug, produced in Brazil — has been even more enthusiastically promoted by Mr Bolsonaro, who contends the virus is largely unavoidable and, what is more, not a serious medical problem.
“He has become the poster boy for curing Covid with hydroxychloroquine,” said Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. “Chloroquine composes part of the denialist’s political strategy, with the objective of convincing voters that the pandemic’s effects can be easily controlled.”
The army churned out more than 2 million pills — 18 times the country’s normal annual production — even as Brazil’s intensive care medicine association recommended it not be prescribed and doctors mostly complied. The White House on May 31 said it had donated 2 million hydroxychloroquine pills to Brazil. Two weeks later the U.S. Food & Drug Administration revoked authorisation for its emergency use, citing adverse side effects and saying it is unlikely to be effective.
Brazil’s audit court on June 18 requested an investigation into alleged overbilling from the local production of chloroquine, which it called unreasonable given the drug’s ineffectiveness and cited the FDA decision. Meantime, stocks of sedatives and other medications used in intensive care ran out in three states, according to a late-June report from Brazil’s council of state health secretariats.
A former defence minister, Aldo Rebelo, said that he is concerned the army will be wrongly blamed for its involvement in producing a drug that most experts call ineffective against the coronavirus.
“All they did was to follow a legal order and produce the pills,” said Mr Rebelo. “The problem is the health ministry and the decision that the president made.”
“They’re trying to use the Indigenous people as guinea pigs to test chloroquine, use the Indigenous to advertise for chloroquine like Bolsonaro has done on his live broadcasts, like a poster boy for chloroquine,” Kretã Kaingang, an executive coordinator of the Indigenous organisation APIB, said by phone from Brazil’s capital, Brasilia. In Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, three doctors treating COVID-19 in different hospitals told AP that patients routinely requested chloroquine as the pandemic spread, often citing Bolsonaro. In recent weeks, inquiries about the drug were less frequent after scientific doubts arose about its effectiveness, two physicians said.
All say they worry Bolsonaro’s cheerleading will spur a new wave of desperate patients and relatives clamouring for chloroquine..