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The coronavirus and the tragedy it has wrought has prompted so many provocative discussions that it’s hard to pick just one of those topics for scarce blogging time. So I’ll try to cover two here: first, the question of whether coronavirus deaths are being miscounted; second, the politically-motivated controversy over the use of hydroxychloraquin to treat severe cases of Covid-19.

Counting Deaths

I’ve been suspicious that Covid deaths are being over-counted, but I’m no longer as sure of that. Of course, there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the death counts. For example, there is a strong possibility that some Covid deaths are simply not being counted due to lack of diagnoses. But there are widespread suspicions that too many deaths with positive diagnoses are being counted as Covid deaths when decedents have severe co-morbidities. Members of that cohort die on an ongoing basis, but now many or all of those deaths are being attributed to Covid-19. A more perverse counting problem might occur when public health authorities instruct physicians to attribute various respiratory deaths to Covid even without a positive diagnosis! That is happening in some parts of the country.

To avoid any bias in the count, I’ve advocated tracking mortality from all co-morbidities and comparing the total to historical or “normal” levels to calculate “excess deaths”. One could also look at all-cause mortality and do the same, though I don’t think that would be quite on point. For example, traffic deaths are certainly way down, which would distort the excess deaths calculation.

Despite the vagaries in counting, there is no question that the coronavirus has been especially deadly in its brief assault on humans. New York has experienced a sharp increase in deaths, as the chart below illustrates (the chart is a corrected version of what appeared in the Reason article at the prior link). The spike is way out of line with normal seasonal patterns, and it obviously corresponds closely with deaths attributable to Covid-19. It is expected to be short-lived, but it might taper over the course of several weeks or months, Once it does, I suspect that the cumulative deaths under all those other curves in the chart will exceed Covid deaths substantially. Also note that the yellow line for the flu just stops when Covid deaths begin, suggesting that the red line probably incorporates at least some “normal” flu deaths.

Once the virus abates, we’ll be able to tell with a bit more certainty just how deadly the pandemic has been. It will be revealed through analyses of excess deaths. For now, we have the statistics we have, and they should be interpreted cautiously.

Hydrocholraquin

A more boneheaded debate centers on the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloraquin (HCQ) to treat coronavirus patients. There have been many successes, particularly in combination with a Z-Pak, or zinc. Guidelines issued by the American Society of  Thoracic Surgeons last week call for HCQ’s use in advanced cases of coronavirus infection. These and other therapies are being tested formally, but many are prescribed outside any formal testing framework. Remdesivir has been prominent among these. Plasma therapy has been as well, and several other possible treatments are under study.

With respect to HCQ, it’s almost as if the Left, much of the media, and a subset of overly “prescriptive” medical experts were goaded into an irrational position via pure Trump Derangement. Just Google or Bing “Hydroxychloraquine Coronavirus” for a bizarre list of alarmist articles about Trump’s mention of HCQ. To take just two of the claims, the idea that Trump stands to earn substantial personal profits from HCQ because he holds a few equity shares in a manufacturer of generic drugs is patently absurd. And claims that shortages for arthritis, lupus, and malaria patients are imminent are unconvincing, given the massive stockpiles now accumulated and the efforts to ramp-up production.

So much lefty hair is on fire over a potential therapy that is both promising and safe that the media message lacks credulity. But more ominously, the Democrat governors of Michigan and Nevada were so petulant that they banned HCQ’s use in their states, though at least Nevada’a governor rescinded his order. It’s almost as if they don’t want it to work, and don’t want to give it a chance to work. Or do I go too far? No, I don’t think so.

Victoria Taft has a good summary of the media backlash against President Trump’s hopeful statements about HCQ. Not only was the FDA’s authority over the use of HCQ misrepresented, there was also a good bit of smearing of various researchers who’d found preliminary evidence of HCQ’s effectiveness. Let’s be honest: the quality of medical research is often inflated by the research establishment. And the media eat up any study with findings that are noteworthy in any way. Over the years, a great deal of medical research has been based on small samples from which statistical hypothesis tests are shaky at best. That’s one reason for the legendary replication problem in medical research. In the case of HCQ, there has been widespread misuse of the term “anecdotal” in the media, prompted by experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who should know better. The term was used to describe clinical tests on moderately large groups of patients, at least one of which was a randomized control trial.

Every day we hear stories from individual patients that they were saved by HCQ. These are properly called anecdotal accounts. But we also hear from various physicians around the country and world who claim to be astonished at HCQ’s therapeutic efficacy on groups of patients. This link gives another strong indication of how physicians feel about HCQ at this point. These are not from RCTs, but they constitute clinical evidence, not mere “anecdotes”.

By virtue of state and federal right-to-try laws, terminally ill patients can choose to take medications that are unapproved by regulators. Beyond that, FDA approval of HCQ specifically for treating coronavirus was unnecessary because the drug was already legal to prescribe to cover patients as an “off-label” use. That’s true of all drugs approved by the FDA: they can be prescribed legally for off-label uses. When regulators like Dr. Fauci, and even practicing physicians like Dr. Jeffrey Singer (linked below) claim that the FDA hasn’t approved HCQ specifically for treating Covid, it is a technicality: the FDA can certainly “approve” it for that specific use, but it’s already legal to prescribe!

While it won’t end the silly argument, which is obviously grounded in other motives, Dr. Singer brings us to the only reasonable position: treatment of Covid with HCQ is between the patient and their doctor.