U.S. group bombards doctors with coronavirus petition to cut 'red tape'

(Reuters) - Dr. Eric Anderson had just finished vacuuming his New Hampshire home early on Wednesday when the phone in his pocket buzzed with an unusual text message.

FILE PHOTO: Researchers at the University of Minnesota Genomics Center set up an automated liquid handler as researchers begin a trial to see whether malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine can prevent or reduce the severity of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Craig Lassig/File Photo

The message - part of a barrage of texts sent to doctors across the nation - urged him to sign a petition in support of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug touted by President Donald Trump as a potential miracle cure for COVID-19, the contagious and sometimes deadly respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“Tell Trump to CUT RED TAPE & make hydroxychloroquine available to you and your patients,” the message said.

Anderson was disturbed.

Despite Trump’s claims that hydroxychloroquine could be among “the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” the decades-old drug has no proven effect on COVID-19. Anderson said he responded to the text with the words “You’re idiots” and deleted the message.

Wednesday’s text message barrage, aimed at medical professionals across the United States, was executed by the Job Creators Network Foundation - one of two related groups founded and funded by billionaire Trump supporters.

They include Home Depot Inc. co-founder Bernie Marcus - who set up the group - and tycoon Philip Anschutz, via his eponymous foundation. Andy Puzder, who was briefly Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, was once also a prominent member of the network.

Foundation President Elaine Parker said her group was not necessarily endorsing the treatment.

“We are not advocating for use of the drug, only access to the drug for doctors who determine that’s the best course of treatment for their patient,” she said in an email.

Dr. Jane Orient, the executive director of the conservative Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and one of the petition’s signatories, said that, so long as drugs did no harm, doctors should be allowed to prescribe them based on nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

“If it’s safe and might be effective, if I’m the doctor or if I’m the patient, I want to try it,” Orient said.

Thomas McGarity, a professor of administrative law at the University of Texas, said the text message campaign was part of a longstanding effort by some on the political right to neuter the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and put more decision-making power into the hands of patients and doctors that drug companies could pitch to directly.

McGarity said their philosophy was, “the market can handle this - we don’t need an FDA to be getting in the way.”

Anderson, the New Hampshire doctor, said he found the idea of enlisting physicians in a deregulatory crusade unnerving, especially amid the current coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m all for capitalism, but this is not the time” for such a push, he said.

Reporting by Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing; Editing by Paul Simao and Pritha Sarkar