Palmer’s snake oil

The worst part of madness is that it hurts other people. These are the kindest words that can be said about Clive Palmer’s newspaper ads, claiming he has bought 32.9 million doses of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19.

Quite unnecessarily the ads say they were “Authorised by Clive Palmer”. It’s quaint that he believes the electoral commission would care. Perhaps he doesn’t realise that the $83.7 million he spent at the last election won him no seats. Perhaps in this game of dress-ups it doesn’t matter. Some children write “TM” on their drawings because they’ve seen the trademark symbol on cereal boxes.

Clive Palmer’s stockpile of hydroxychloroquine is unlikely to treat Covid-19, but it does create false hope and confusion. It undermines genuine public health measures and will prevent the drug being used elsewhere to treat malaria.

This interruption of supply is not accidental: it is the premise of Palmer’s hoarding. The people who will suffer most are largely poor and largely in the developing world.

“If we had not moved in early March when we did, we would have lost our opportunity,” Palmer says in his ads. “At this time of national crisis in our country, all Australians must do whatever they can to help their fellow Australians.”

There is no medical proof for Palmer’s belief that hydroxychloroquine is “the best hope for those suffering Covid-19”. Trials have shown no improvement for patients treated with the drug, even in combination with other drugs. Some trials have shown a higher mortality rate for those given the antimalarial. Studies are ongoing.

These details are not in Clive Palmer’s full-page ads. He shows instead a time line of trials and national flags and says the drug “is showing enormous promise in the treatment of Covid-19”. He notes that in April the Health minister said doctors could trial the drug in hospitals if they wished. “Since that time,” he writes, “Australia’s death rate from Covid-19 has been the lowest in the world and the curve has flattened.”

Nothing connects these two sentences, except delusion and grandeur. The recklessness of it is quite extraordinary. The frivolity belongs to dinosaur parks and replica ships but not to medicine.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates pharmaceuticals in Australia, will not censor Palmer’s ads. It says the claims are “not intended to promote the sale of the product”. Still, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners warns promotion of untested cures could give a “false sense of security” and jeopardise measures that are actually working to control the spread.

This week, the United States Food and Drug Administration warned that hydroxychloroquine may create serious heart rhythm problems for patients with Covid-19. It cautioned against usage outside clinical settings. “Be aware,” the authority said, “that there are no proven treatments for Covid-19 and no vaccine.”

Palmer has a rich man’s belief in elusion. In 2012, he revealed he was diagnosed with sleep apnoea after falling asleep five times during a movie. His treatment was novel and exclusive. He flew to Boston and booked into a program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Like Donald Trump, Palmer seems to think you can bluff disease. He thinks his wealth will chasten the virus. In most situations it would, but not when there is no cure.

No doubt Palmer believes he is being generous. He is importing vast reserves of hydroxychloroquine and says it can be used free of charge. But without proof it will work, the promotion of this drug is a risk to public health. It is a form of heedless bunkum.

Palmer’s generosity is really vanity, in the way so many of his projects are vanity, and it is dangerous.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Palmer’s snake oil".

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