Home Science & Tech A Senate hearing promoted unproven drugs and dubious claims about the coronavirus

A Senate hearing promoted unproven drugs and dubious claims about the coronavirus

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Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, spent much of this year promoting investigations into Hunter Biden, trying fruitlessly to show corruption on the part of Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Now Mr. Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, is more focused on another narrative sympathetic to President Trump if not to established science: that the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has been overblown and that public health officials have been too quick to come to conclusions about the best ways to deal with it.

So on Tuesday, for not the first time, Mr. Johnson lent his committee’s platform to the promotion of unproven drugs and dubious claims about stemming the spread of the coronavirus while giving prominence to a vaccine skeptic.

In a move that led even most members of his own party on the committee to avoid the hearing, Mr. Johnson called witnesses who promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The National Institutes of Health guidelines recommend against using either drug to treat coronavirus patients except in clinical trials.

Hydroxychloroquine is an antimalarial drug that President Trump has heavily promoted but has shown disappointing results in many clinical trials. Ivermectin is used to treat parasites in humans as well as to prevent heartworms in dogs; research on its effectiveness in treating the coronavirus has been mixed.

Despite the regulatory warnings and the lack of substantial scientific evidence for their efficacy, Mr. Johnson claimed that “discouraging and in some cases prohibiting the research and use of drugs that have been safely used for decades has cost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people their lives.”

Just three other senators on the 14-member committee attended Tuesday’s session — “such low participation,” Mr. Johnson acknowledged at one point. Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, criticized the hearing in opening remarks but left before asking questions. On the Republican side, only Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Josh Hawley of Missouri made appearances.

For about two and a half hours, the participants continuously challenged public health consensus, sometimes advancing inaccurate and previously debunked claims.

One witness, Dr. Ramin Oskoui, a cardiologist in Washington, argued that “masks do not work” and “social distancing doesn’t work” by citing a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The study tracked virus transmission among Marine Corps recruits who underwent quarantine. But two of the study’s authors refuted Dr. Oskoui’s interpretation. Rather, they said, the study showed that nonpharmaceutical interventions like masks and social distancing cannot be relied on alone to eliminate transmission.

“For me, drawing the conclusion from our study that masking is not effective is like claiming that car brakes are not effective in preventing crashes because accidents still occur when they are used,” said Dr. Stuart C. Sealfon, the senior author of the study and a professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “This is either a mistaken or a deliberately misleading interpretation of the results of the study.”

Dr. Sealfon added: “In view of the preponderance of evidence in the scientific literature supporting the benefits of mask wearing in reducing the transmission of SARS-COV-2, no reasonable scientist would conclude that these measures are ineffective. They are very effective, but they are not foolproof.”

Throughout the hearing, Dr. Oskoui also promoted prescribing zinc and vitamin D. He said that the United States should follow the example of Britain and distribute vitamin D supplements to older people.

The N.I.H. also recommends against using zinc to treat the coronavirus except in clinical trials. The British government has offered 2.5 million people free vitamin D to keep bones and muscle healthy, especially as more people stayed indoors, but the National Health Service has noted that “there is currently not enough evidence to support taking vitamin D to prevent or treat coronavirus.”

Dr. Jane M. Orient, a prominent skeptic of vaccines, also cast doubt on mask wearing, suggesting that “maybe instead of putting masks on everybody, we should be putting lids on the toilet or putting Clorox into it before you flush it.” While there is some evidence that toilet bowls can be infectious, the virus is most commonly distributed through close contact with others, and masks do offer some protection.

Dr. Orient also cited “192 studies compiled on hydroxychloroquine with all showing some benefit when used early.”

That appeared to be an exaggerated reference to a database of studies gathered by an anonymous group. Of those studies, about 40 were categorized as researching use of hydroxychloroquine as an early treatment, and about two dozen of those concluding that the drug demonstrated “positive” effects.

Mr. Hawley criticized lockdowns as harmful to mental health, accurately citing a government survey showing that a quarter of young adults seriously thought about suicide in June. He then repeated an inaccurate claim from Mr. Trump that the World Health Organization no longer recommends lockdowns.

Mr. Johnson himself echoed praise for hydroxychloroquine, claiming that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also “talked” about the drug. While it is true that Dr. Fauci has discussed hydroxychloroquine in the pandemic, he has warned against its use.

As the hearing drew to a close, the senator offered his opinion of the severity of the pandemic.

“It’s certainly worse than the flu, but is it that much worse to cause that much economic devastation with that severe of a human toll?” Mr. Johnson asked.

That prompted almost immediate pushback from one of his own witnesses, Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya of Stanford University School of Medicine, who told the senator: “It is worse than the flu.”

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