Words matter – Unintended consequences of rush for COVID-19 treatment and poor communication

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Scientists are under great pressure, internal and external, to find successful treatments for people seriously ill with the new coronavirus. Scientists are heroes, working with exceptional “vigor and speed” to find options. Unfortunately, sometimes that pressure results in early results being misunderstood and misused. Research conducted during a pandemic is not optimal for rigorous science or public use. An article in the Annals of Internal Medicine describes how that happened with hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). HCQ showed promise against the virus in the lab and the medication is cheap, widely-available, and safe for most people. The initial study had limitations, most of which were understandable in a pandemic. Unfortunately, scientists’ disclaimers were lost in over-simplified messaging on media, social media, and by some policymakers. In addition to treatment, HCQ was promoted as effective for preventive protection from the virus, for which there was no evidence at all. A rush on HCQ has led to shortages for patients with rheumatic disease who can suffer dire consequences without it. Major medical organizations called on the White House Coronavirus Taskforce to ensure the supply of HCQ for people who need it. The authors believe that HCQ deserves more research as a COVID-19 treatment, but that we all need to be careful how we communicate, especially during a public health emergency.