Trump and Musk Hydroxychloroquine 'Endorsements' Tied to 1,300 Percent Spike in Google Searches About Buying Drug

Google searches tied to the purchasing of two antimalarial drugs spiked after being "endorsed" by Elon Musk and President Trump, research suggests.

Academic analysis shows internet searches for purchasing chloroquine spiked by 442 percent, while searches for hydroxychloroquine leapt by 1,389 percent, after the drugs were touted as potential breakthroughs in the treatment of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The findings come from a new study by researchers at Oxford, Harvard, UC San Diego and Johns Hopkins universities, which used Americans' Google search data to analyze how the public was hunting for unproven drugs as the pandemic spread.

On March 16, Tesla CEO Musk claimed chloroquine was "maybe worth considering" in the context of COVID-19, then tweeted: "Hydroxychloroquine probably better."

On March 19, Trump named hydroxychloroquine as one potential "game-changer" in the fight against the disease that has now claimed more than 58,300 U.S. lives.

Within a week, an Arizona man had died after ingesting chloroquine phosphate, which was not the medication variant of the drug, in the belief that it would protect him from coronavirus. His wife was also hospitalized after taking the substance.

Clinical trials of the drugs have been taking place across the world—to mixed results. Researchers stressed it is vital to rely on "evidence-based medicine" and reiterated the official health warning that there is no known cure or vaccine for COVID-19.

In the study, the team tracked all Google searches in the U.S. mentioning the two drugs "chloroquine" or "hydroxychloroquine" in combination with "buy," "order," "Walmart," "eBay," or "Amazon." They focused on between February 1 and March 29.

The team compared the phrases' search frequency with a time before the high profile endorsements, based on historical search trends for the same terms.

It emerged the first, and largest, spikes in searches had coincided with the comments made by Musk and Trump, researchers said, noting that queries for purchasing either chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine remained high after the Arizona death.

"We estimate there were more than 200,000 total Google searches for buying these two drugs in only 14 days following high-profile endorsements," said Dr. Mark Dredze, study co-author and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. "This could be evidence that thousands of Americans were interested in purchasing these drugs."

"As someone who has been studying health misinformation for years, we usually think misinformation spreads from unreliable health sources, online trolls, and bots. It's rare to have health misinformation coming from such high-profile figures," he added.

The findings are published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The White House and Tesla were asked for comment about the use of the term endorsement.

A White House representative rejected use of the term, telling Newsweek via email: "From the beginning, Democrats and the media have mounted a coordinated effort to criticize this President for discussing a proven, safe drug throughout this pandemic as a possible treatment that could save a person's life. While some are rooting for the drug to fail, President Trump is simply offering a consistent message of hope, comfort, and optimism while telling Americans to consult with their doctor."

But Michael Liu, a graduate student at Oxford and the study's first author, said that the drugs being advertised was "especially troublesome" for multiple reasons.

He said: "First, these treatments have inconclusive clinical efficacy. Second, these drugs have potentially fatal side effects. Third, chloroquine-containing products such as aquarium cleaner are commercially available to the public without a prescription."

The author continued: "Even during these unprecedented circumstances, we must still practice evidence-based medicine. This means allowing the usual FDA approval process to run its course so the public is protected from unnecessary harms."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC.
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump answers reporters' questions after signing the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2020. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty