In the Oval Office on Wednesday the president kissed a small boy with muscular dystrophy. Behind them were two men who Trump described as battling ALS. He thanked them for their bravery. He took up his pen for the camera and announced that by signing the controversial legislation—known as “right to try”—he would be saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
“We will be saving—I don’t even want to say thousands, because I think it’s going to be much more. Thousands and thousands. Hundreds of thousands. We’re going to be saving tremendous numbers of lives.”
In fact it’s unclear if the law will save a single life, especially when weighed against how many lives it could shorten. There’s no way to know, and that is exactly the point. The law allows pharmaceutical companies to provide medications to patients that have not been tested for effectiveness, and with only minimal evidence of safety. On the long list of ways the United States could improve access to quality health care—including affordable, safe, effective medication—nowhere does “right to try” appear.
It is rather a step in the wrong direction, but one that is easy to misrepresent and to sell as good. Typically only drugs that have been deemed safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration, based on three-phase clinical trials, can be sold to patients. “Right to try” allows that process to be circumvented—though in news coverage this often receives a more congratulatory slant. CNBC announced that Trump’s signature would “allow gravely ill patients to bypass [the] FDA for experimental treatment.” As The Washington Post said, it “[gives] desperately ill patients the opportunity to receive promising experimental drugs that do not yet have FDA approval.” This is much the same as Trump’s own words: “These are experimental treatments and products that have shown great promise, and we weren’t able to use them before. Now we can use them.”