WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Monday that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug the Food and Drug Administration warned could cause serious heart problems for coronavirus patients. He said he was taking the drug as a preventive measure and continued to test negative for the coronavirus.
“All I can tell you is so far I seem to be OK,” Mr. Trump said, adding that he had been taking the drug for about a week and a half, with the approval of the White House physician. “I get a lot of tremendously positive news on the hydroxy,” Mr. Trump continued, explaining that his decision to try the drug was based on one of his favorite refrains: “What do you have to lose?”
But Mr. Trump’s announcement surprised many of his aides and drew immediate criticism from a range of medical experts, who warned not just of the dangers it posed for the president’s health but also of the example it set.
“My concern would be that the public not hear comments about the use of hydroxychloroquine and believe that taking this drug to prevent Covid-19 infection is without hazards. In fact, there are serious hazards,” said Dr. Steven E. Nissen, the chief academic officer of the Miller Family Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.
Dr. Scott Solomon, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said Mr. Trump’s decision to try the drug was up to him and his physician. “But what is irresponsible is the example he is setting,” Dr. Solomon said.
Mr. Trump publicly embraced hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer” in the fight against the virus in March, and his endorsement, amplified by Fox News hosts like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, caused a run on the drug, making it scarce for those who took it for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, for which it is regularly prescribed.
But on Monday night, Dr. Manny Alvarez, the senior managing editor for Fox News’s health news, said on air that the president’s statement was “highly irresponsible” and asked what had changed since studies showed the drug had no benefits.
Mr. Trump first said he was considering taking the drug himself in April. But in recent weeks he had notably stopped promoting it, as did the Fox News hosts. But he then suggested at a news conference that injecting disinfectants into the human body could help combat the virus, causing confused callers to flood state health hotlines and the makers of Clorox and Lysol to plead with Americans not to inject or ingest their products.
His announcement on Monday came less than a month after the F.D.A. issued a safety warning about the drug, noting that it could cause dangerous abnormalities in heart rhythm in coronavirus patients and should not be used outside clinical trials or in hospitals where patients were closely monitored for heart problems.
But by that time hydroxychloroquine had become a divisive issue within the Trump administration. Dr. Rick Bright, who led the federal agency involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine, said he was removed from his post after he pressed for rigorous vetting of the drug.
Dr. Bright said he was pressured to direct money toward hydroxychloroquine, one of several “potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.”
On Monday, the president not only promoted the drug but also said he was taking it. And he made it clear that his decision was based on trusting anecdotal evidence, and his own gut, over the warnings of the government, or any data.
In that sense his position was consistent with his view of other expert medical advice — he has also refused to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and wear a face mask. And before becoming president he had alleged that there was a link between the number of vaccines children got in early infancy and the development of autism.
“I take it because I think I hear very good things,” Mr. Trump said, citing a letter he received from an unnamed doctor in Westchester, N.Y., promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine.
“I want the people of this nation to feel good. I don’t want them being sick,” Mr. Trump said at the end of a round table with restaurant executives at the White House. “And there is a very good chance that this has an impact, especially early on.”
As for taking hydroxychloroquine, “I’m not going to get hurt by it,” Mr. Trump said, adding that he was sharing the news to be transparent with Americans and appearing to enjoy the shock value of his announcement. “It has been around for 40 years for malaria, for lupus, for other things.”
Later on Monday night, the White House physician, Dr. Sean P. Conley, released a statement that linked Mr. Trump’s decision to take the drug to the “support staff” who tested positive for the virus, an apparent reference to the president’s personal valet. “After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks,” Dr. Conley said. He also said the president “is in very good health and has remained symptom free.”
Early studies of hydroxychloroquine in the laboratory suggesting that the drug could block the coronavirus from attacking cells prompted initial enthusiasm. But the studies of the drug in humans so far have pointed to serious side effects.
“I think it’s a very bad idea to be taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive medication,” said Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “There are no data to support that, there’s no evidence and in fact there is no compelling evidence to support its use at all at this point.”
Dr. Topol said the risk of developing a potentially fatal arrhythmia because of hydroxychloroquine could come without warning and did not happen only in people with heart conditions. “We can’t predict that. In fact, it can happen in people who are healthy,” he said. “It could happen in anyone.”
Mr. Trump has never provided the public with a full picture of his health. In 2018, the White House physician reported that Mr. Trump had an LDL cholesterol level of 143, well above the desired level of 100 or less. Some cardiologists who are not associated with the White House said his cholesterol levels raised heart concerns.
Mr. Trump made a trip in November to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that was not listed on his public schedule. He stayed for about two hours for what White House officials said were routine tests, but since the visit had not been revealed in advance and came only nine months after his last annual physical, it touched off much discussion about whether the president had an undisclosed health issue.
Mr. Trump, 73, is the oldest man ever sworn in for a first term as president, and he is known for his love of fast food and takes pride in not exercising. At his checkup last year he weighed 243 pounds, which is considered obese for a man of his reported height of 6 feet 3 inches. He has been reported in the past to be taking rosuvastatin, a lipid-lowering drug, to control his cholesterol.
Neil Cavuto, a Fox News host, reacted to the president’s announcement with a grim warning that once might have shocked his network’s viewers. To anyone with pre-existing conditions, he said: “It will kill you. I cannot stress enough. This will kill you.”
Annie Karni reported from Washington, and Katie Thomas from New York.