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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Sunday said the Department of Veterans Affairs must explain why it allowed the use of hydroxychloroquine on veterans as a treatment for the coronavirus despite a lack of consensus on its safety.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Schumer said the VA must provide Congress more information about a recent bulk order for over $200,000 worth of the malaria drug, which President Trump has promoted as a potential treatment for COVID-19.
"There are concerns that they are using this drug when the medical evidence says it doesn't help and could hurt," Schumer said.
He also said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie should answer questions about a recent analysis of VA hospital data that showed there were more deaths among patients given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care, including how much patients knew about the drug's risks before taking it.
Schumer said his main concern was determining whether the VA had conducted any "clandestine studies to determine whether hydroxychloroquine was effective without their permission."
"These are people who risked their lives for us," Schumer said. "They should be treated only with the utmost dignity, respect and high standards of care."
Wilkie in recent weeks has denied that veterans were used as test subjects for the drug. He said government-run VA hospitals administered the medication with mutual consent between doctors and patients.
He also dismissed the recent analysis of VA hospital data showing no benefits to patients, suggesting the poor outcomes were because the cases involved older, very sick veterans.
"Use of this medication for treatment of COVID-19 is considered 'off label' — perfectly legal and not rare," he wrote in an April 29 letter to veterans' groups.
The analysis of hospital data, performed by independent researchers at two universities with VA approval, analyzed medical records of 368 older men hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus infection at VA medical centers who died or were discharged by April 11.
About 28 percent of veterans who were given hydroxychloroquine plus usual care died, versus 11 percent of those getting routine care alone.
The VA recently announced most of its recent bulk order for hydroxychloroquine was being used for approved uses, such as treating lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Wilkie, in recent weeks, claimed it has been effective for young and middle-aged veterans in particular.
The drug has long been used to treat malaria and other ailments. A few preliminary studies suggested it might help prevent the coronavirus from entering cells and possibly help patients clear the virus sooner. But, the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] last month warned doctors against prescribing the drug for COVID-19 outside hospitals because of the risks of serious side effects and death.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.