True to form, Bolsonaro backs chloroquine despite lack of scientific evidence

. Apr 09, 2020
True to form, Bolsonaro backs chloroquine despite lack of scientific evidence Photo: Novikov Aleksey/Shutterstock

Addressing the nation on Wednesday evening, President Jair Bolsonaro once again touted the potential of anti-malaria drug chloroquine as a potential cure for Covid-19. Referencing a conversation he had with cardiologist Roberto Kalil who took the medication after contracting the coronavirus, the president said this decision “could go down in history as having saved thousands of lives in Brazil.”

The problem, however, is that there is not enough robust scientific evidence to prove hydroxychloroquine is effective against Covid-19. Dr. Kalil’s physician later told the press that he prescribed a number of other medications to his patient, including painkiller metamizole. “Who is to say that didn’t cure his Covid-19?” he remarked.

In a tense meeting with President Jair Bolsonaro on Monday,

Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta refused to sign a decree that would allow medical workers to self-prescribe hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19. </p> <p>Mr. Mandetta&#8217;s view on the drug is one of his main points of contention with President Bolsonaro, who has a long history of championing policies that fly in the face of scientific evidence. In 2016, years before he was considered a viable presidential candidate, then-Congressman Bolsonaro gained national attention while promoting a bill to legalize an unproven cancer treatment known simply as &#8220;the cancer pill.&#8221;</p> <p>Chloroquine, and its less toxic derivative hydroxychloroquine, have traditionally been used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases such as severe arthritis and lupus. Following <a href="">positive comments</a> made by U.S. President Donald Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has been publically hailing the potential of the drug as a potential Covid-19 cure, despite the lack of robust scientific evidence over its effectiveness or safety. </p> <p>Though Mr. Mandetta has refused to sign the latest decree on the subject, the Health Ministry has already allowed the use of hydroxychloroquine on patients with severe or critical coronavirus symptoms.</p> <h2>Chloroquine in Brazil</h2> <p>On March 20, newspaper <em>Folha de S. Paulo</em> <a href="">reported</a> that health insurance company Prevent Senior and the high-end Albert Einstein Hospital in São Paulo were launching studies on the effectiveness of the combination of using chloroquine and azithromycin on Covid-19 patients. </p> <p>President Bolsonaro quickly latched onto the news, announcing that Army laboratories were set to increase their production of chloroquine and tweeting that results from clinical trials would bring &#8220;the necessary ease and tranquility to the world.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>The president went one better in his new role as chloroquine&#8217;s poster boy in Brazil, taking part in a G20 videoconference while displaying a box of Reuquinol, a hydroxychloroquine-based drug.&nbsp;</p> <p>Reuquinol is produced by Brazilian pharmaceutical company Aspen, whose CEO Renato Spallicci is a public supporter of Jair Bolsonaro. According to <em>Exame</em> magazine, Aspen has tripled its production of the drug, anticipating permission to use it as treatment for Covid-19.</p> <p>The hype around hydroxychloroquine prompted Brazilians in their droves to purchase it preemptively, causing stocks to disappear from the shelves of several pharmacies. Brazil&#8217;s Sanitary Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) moved to restrict access to the drug, in a bid to ensure its supply for malaria and lupus sufferers and to curb self-medication.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s record of endorsing unapproved drugs</h2> <p>While fond of taking political cues from Donald Trump in Washington D.C., Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s fondness for hydroxychloroquine is likely to be less about adhering to his U.S. counterpart and more of a continuation of his own form. Back in 2016, Mr. Bolsonaro had a brief moment in the Brazilian political sun when he championed a bill to legalize what he referred to as the &#8220;cancer pill,&#8221; synthetic phosphoethanolamine.&nbsp;</p> <p>The drug had been informally distributed by a retired professor from the São Carlos chemistry faculty of the University of São Paulo since the 1990s, until the institution prohibited the distribution of unregistered medications on its campus.&nbsp;</p> <p>The professor in question, Gilberto Orivaldo Cherice, went to the press to defend the importance of &#8220;the cancer pill.&#8221; The drug was never approved by Anvisa but gained broader attention leading to a slew of lawsuits from cancer patients and their families, demanding access to the experimental treatment.</p> <p>As a low-level member of Congress, Jair Bolsonaro became one of the main campaigners for the cancer pill in Brasilia, submitting one of the many bills that would make the drug legal. Alongside his son Eduardo Bolsonaro, the current Brazilian president was one of the 28 authors of the final proposal approved by President Dilma Rousseff on April 13, 2016. However, its effects were suspended by the Supreme Court soon after, when <a href="">the drug turned out to be a scam</a>.</p> <p>As president, Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly promoted policies that <a href="">go against scientific evidence</a>.</p> <p>In the first five months of his term, Mr. Bolsonaro issued a decree to loosen rules on gun ownership in the country. The measure removed a number of restrictions on who may own firearms and extends the right to obtain carry permits to various professions, including journalists.</p> <p>While deaths from firearms haven’t decreased in Brazil since the enaction of the Disarmament Act in 2003, yearly increases have slowed down significantly. Recent figures are worrying, however, with the annual Violence Atlas study showing that there were 47,510 firearm deaths in 2017, an increase of 6.8 percent from the previous year. The director of the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea), appointed by Jair Bolsonaro, underlined his support for looser gun controls, even when faced with such worrying data.</p> <p>In more recent developments, the president has championed another anti-scientific cause which would change the model of Brazil&#8217;s social isolation measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. In what he calls &#8220;<a href="">vertical isolation</a>,&#8221; Mr. Bolsonaro proposes that only the over 60s and those from other Covid-19 risk groups should remain at home, while the rest of the population be free to go about their business as normal. However, &#8220;vertical isolation&#8221; is a completely dreamed up concept, not backed by any scientific study whatsoever.

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André Cabette Fábio

André Cabette Fábio is an award-winning journalist who has previously been published by Folha de S.Paulo, UOL, Nexo, Estadão, and Die Zeit Online. He has mainly written about human rights, inequality, macroeconomics, and violence.

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