In an emergency when people are scared, it’s very easy to sell the idea of, What are you waiting for? There’s no time to wait. Everyone should just be taking it. And that’s what the president has said. Just two weeks ago, President Trump told everyone to try it, and he tweeted that it’s a game changer and could be maybe the most promising drug in the history of medicine. And obviously, at a moment when people are desperate and terrified, that’s going to lead them to rush to their doctors and ask for prescriptions. But while this drug has been safely used with people who are generally healthy but who have lupus or arthritis, that’s different from someone who's on the brink of being unable to breathe. Every single thing that you do to their biochemistry, the effect is amplified in a moment like that.
Wells: For medicine, especially in a crisis, we want to be told what to do, how to fix the problem. We want the answer now. People are dying.
Hamblin: Right. You don’t want to have more people die or make it worse or have another variable in this equation, where you suddenly realize that this unproven drug can have a strange effect on people who have this brand-new disease.
Wells: You can blame people who should know better, like Dr. Oz, for peddling false hope, which could have damaging consequences. But can you blame Trump for wanting this to be true? Isn’t it a transparent Hail Mary?
Hamblin: Yeah. And he’s sort of right when he says, ‘It’s really bad when you get on a ventilator. We want to keep people off the ventilator; that’s why you should take this.’ He’s phrased it wrong. But I understand what he’s saying, that when you are in your 70s or 80s and you have to go on a ventilator, the statistics are bad.
But I think part of it is a political narrative that Dr. Oz and Sean Hannity have a part in.
Wells: When will we know how to treat this new coronavirus?
Hamblin: When we have clinical trials in coming months. And there is not going to be a drug that cures everyone. We don’t have that for the flu. We don’t have that for the common cold. What we do is modulate the disease.
Wells: So there may be some drugs that make it less likely for certain types of people to die in certain scenarios?
Hamblin: Yeah, that’s it.
Wells: People, myself included, are still having such a hard time coming to terms with that. We all want to know: When can we get the economy up and running again? When can we all go outside again? When is all of this going to be over? And the answer is still about a year. And I just keep trying to come up with new ideas so that the answer is not a year.
Hamblin: Well, there’ll be moments when we’ll be able to ease things a little bit, as we’ve seen in other countries.
But our society is forever changed. And we’re going to think about interactions with people in it differently for a very long time. Even when the risk is low, there’ll be a lot of people who will be wanting to avoid closeness in a large crowd.
Wells: Tell me how to maintain hope.
Hamblin: People are doing great work to investigate these things and to roll them out safely. Every day, doctors and nurses and everyone are getting better at developing protocols and knowing how to treat this disease and how to keep people alive. And a single drug may end up being helpful. But we’re learning this whole process of testing and triage, and it’s all getting better day by day.