Fact check: Fauci’s emails don’t show he ‘lied’ about hydroxychloroquine

The claim: Emails show Dr. Anthony Fauci ‘lied’ about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19

The recent release of hundreds of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s emails from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic has become fodder for online misinformation.

Social media users have claimed Fauci’s emails contain the origins of the coronavirus (false) and show that he knew face masks were ineffective at preventing the virus’ spread (missing context). Others have falsely claimed the emails, which The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, were leaked.

Now, the Gateway Pundit — a conservative website that hasrepeatedlypublished false claims about COVID-19 — says the emails show Fauci “lied” about a coronavirus treatment that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

“Fauci Was Informed of Hydroxychloroquine Success in Early 2020 But Lied to Public Instead Despite the Science,” reads the headline on a June 3 article, which has more than 8,200 shares on Facebook.

Similar claims have circulated widely among pro-Donald Trump and alternative health pages and groups on Facebook. According to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool, posts mentioning Fauci and hydroxychloroquine have racked up tens of thousands of interactions in the days after the emails were made public.

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Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, did send and receive emails about hydroxychloroquine in spring 2020. But he didn’t “lie” about its effectiveness in treating COVID-19.

Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, is not a proven treatment for COVID-19, public health officials say. Early in the pandemic, Fauci expressed interest in the drug, but he maintained that more data was needed to prove its efficacy. Fauci’s emailed comments on hydroxychloroquine line up with what he said in public and the scientific consensus about the drug.

USA TODAY reached out to the Gateway Pundit for comment.

What Fauci’s emails show

Several of the emails obtained by The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News mention hydroxychloroquine.

The earliest mention of hydroxychloroquine in the cache of emails dates to Feb. 24, 2020, when Fauci responded to an inquiry about using the drug to treat COVID-19.

“Is there any indication/data to substantiate this claim from China (attached publication) that chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine can decrease COVID-19 infections and lung disease?” wrote Philip Gatti, a pharmacologist for the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, takes questions as he speaks with reporters in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (Photo: Alex Brandon, AP)

Fauci replied: “There are no data in this brief report and so I have no way of evaluating their claim. There are a lot of these types of claims going around. I would love to see their data.”

It’s a line that Fauci repeated often over the next several weeks, both in public and in private: Claims that hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID-19 were based on anecdotal evidence.

Early hope for hydroxychloroquine was based primarily on two small trials that suggested the drug helped patients recover from COVID-19. But other studies offered conflicting results, and randomized controlled trials — the gold standard for measuring the effectiveness of a drug or treatment — had not yet been conducted.

“We will know soon whether hydroxychloroquine has any beneficial effects as the results of randomized, controlled trials become available,” Fauci wrote in a May 1, 2020, email.

In a press release published two weeks later, as Trump continued to tout hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, Fauci tempered expectations for the drug ahead of a clinical trial from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Fact check: No link between India’s falling COVID-19 cases and hydroxychloroquine

“Although there is anecdotal evidence that hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin may benefit people with COVID-19, we need solid data from a large randomized, controlled clinical trial to determine whether this experimental treatment is safe and can improve clinical outcomes,” he said in the press release, which he approved in an April 23, 2020, email.

The NIH halted the clinical trial in June 2020 after data indicated hydroxychloroquine “provided no additional benefit compared to placebo control for the treatment of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients.” The FDA revoked its emergency use authorization for the drug around the same time, saying “the known and potential benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine no longer outweigh the known and potential risks for the authorized use.”

USA TODAY reached out to Fauci for additional comment.

Hydroxychloroquine isn’t COVID-19 treatment

Hydroxychloroquine is not a proven treatment for COVID-19, as USA TODAY and several other independent fact-checking organizations havepointedout.

Large-scale clinical trials in several countries have found no benefit to using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.

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“The finding that hydroxychloroquine is not effective for the treatment of COVID-19 was consistent across patient subgroups and for all evaluated outcomes, including clinical status, mortality, organ failures, duration of oxygen use and hospital length of stay,” Dr. Wesley Self, trial lead and associate professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said in a press release.

Several public health agencies caution against using the drug to treat COVID-19.

In early July, the FDA issued a summary of safety issues associated with using hydroxychloroquine to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Among them: blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries and liver problems.

After six clinical trials, the World Health Organization reached similar conclusions.

“Using hydroxychloroquine for prevention had little or no effect on preventing illness, hospitalization or death from COVID-19,” the agency says on its website. “Taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19 may increase the risk of diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, drowsiness and headache.”

Our rating: False

The claim that emails show Fauci “lied” about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19 is FALSE, based on our research. Fauci’s emails line up with what he said in public about hydroxychloroquine and the scientific consensus about the drug — that more data was needed. When later studies provided that data, it became clear hydroxychloroquine does not effectively treat COVID-19. Public health officials warn against its use in treating the coronavirus.

Our fact-check sources:

  • The Gateway Pundit, June 3, SMOKING GUN: FAUCI LIED, MILLIONS DIED — Fauci Was Informed of Hydroxychloroquine Success in Early 2020 But Lied to Public Instead Despite the Science #FauciEmails
  • USA TODAY, June 3, How Dr. Anthony Fauci’s private comments in newly released emails stack up with what he said in public
  • CrowdTangle, accessed June 4
  • USA TODAY, June 3, Fact check: No, email to Fauci doesn’t contain origin of a ‘coronavirus bioweapon’
  • USA TODAY, June 3, Fact check: False claims about Fauci email ‘leak’ mischaracterize FOIA requests and release
  • USA TODAY, June 3, Fact check: Missing context in claim about emails, Fauci’s position on masks
  • The Washington Post, June 1, Anthony Fauci’s pandemic emails: ‘All is well despite some crazy people in this world’
  • BuzzFeed News, June 1, Anthony Fauci’s Emails Reveal The Pressure That Fell On One Man
  • USA TODAY, April 24, Fact check: Study falsely claiming face masks are harmful, ineffective is not linked to Stanford
  • USA TODAY, May 21, Fact check: No link between India’s falling COVID-19 cases and hydroxychloroquine
  • USA TODAY, March 16, Fact check: Boxing champ Marvin Hagler’s death not caused by COVID-19 vaccine
  • Earthley, June 3, Facebook
  • MAGA TV 2020, June 4, Facebook
  • PolitiFact, April 8, 2020, Hydroxychloroquine and coronavirus: what you need to know
  • PolitiFact, March 23, 2020, A 100% COVID-19 cure? No, chloroquine effectiveness only anecdotal
  • Snopes, March 25, 2020, Are Hydroxychloroquine, Azithromycin ‘Game Changers’ in Fight Against COVID-19?
  • National Institutes of Health, May 14, 2020, NIH begins clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to treat COVID-19
  • National Institutes of Health, June 20, 2020, NIH halts clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine
  • USA TODAY, May 5, 2020, HHS official Rick Bright says he was ousted after raising concern about coronavirus drug Trump had touted
  • Food and Drug Administration, July 1, FDA cautions against use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems
  • USA TODAY, July 21, Fact check: Hydroxychloroquine has not worked in treating COVID-19, studies show
  • PolitiFact, July 28, Don’t fall for this video: Hydroxychloroquine is not a COVID-19 cure
  • Factcheck.org, Dec. 18, The Whoppers of 2020
  • Health Feedback, Feb. 3, The American Journal of Medicine didn’t recommend hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19; scientific evidence doesn’t show hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19
  • Food and Drug Administration, June 15, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Revokes Emergency Use Authorization for Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine
  • Health Feedback, Aug. 7, Hydroxychloroquine, alone or in combination with azithromycin, found ineffective for treating COVID-19 in large clinical trials
  • World Health Organization, April 30, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Hydroxychloroquine
  • Food and Drug Administration, Oct. 22, FDA’s approval of Veklury (remdesivir) for the treatment of COVID-19—The Science of Safety and Effectiveness
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed June 4, Information for Clinicians on Investigational Therapeutics for Patients with COVID-19
  • BJOG, June 19, 2018, Randomised controlled trials – the gold standard for effectiveness research

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