Government health officials have rubbished federal MP Craig Kelly for using “low quality” research with “significant methodological concerns”, in his maverick quest to champion a debunked COVID treatment first promoted by Donald Trump.
“These papers are not sufficiently well argued or supported to challenge the generally prevailing global medical view about the role of [hydroxychloroquine],” a senior government medical adviser told deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth in a September email.
Mr Kelly, the Liberal Member for Hughes, has come under fire in recent months over his unending support for hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that had been suggested as a potential COVID treatment in the pandemic’s early stages.
Health experts and government officials worldwide quickly said it would not be effective, and even Mr Trump – an early backer of the potential treatment – backed off from it.
The federal Department of Health says hydroxychloroquine has “well-known serious risks to patients including cardiac toxicity (potentially leading to sudden heart attacks), irreversible eye damage and severe depletion of blood sugar (potentially leading to coma)”.
But Mr Kelly has stuck to his guns, continuing to post about the drug multiple times a week on his popular Facebook page.
The Morrison government has so far resisted facing pressure to crackdown on the Member for Hughes for sharing coronavirus misinformation to the public.
Mr Kelly’s posts have some of the highest levels of engagement and social reach of any Australian politician.
He often posts links to studies from foreign – and sometimes obscure – medical journals, talking up the benefits of hydroxychloroquine.
In July, Mr Kelly suggested Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews could “face 25 years in jail” for not promoting the drug.
Now, newly revealed emails show significant concerns raised by Australian health officials about the evidence the federal MP was relying on.
Expert slams ‘low quality’ claims
Official government emails, obtained by The New Daily under freedom of information, detail a medical adviser in the Department of Health’s Technology Assessment and Access Division – who TND has chosen not to name – rubbishing Mr Kelly’s claims in September.
It came after Mr Kelly and Dr Coatsworth had engaged in a brief stoush in August over hydroxchloroquine.
“I think Australians are very clear on which Kelly should be listened to and that’s [chief medical officer] Paul Kelly,” Dr Coatsworth told a press conference.
“And Paul Kelly, like myself, like all clinicians around Australia, understands that regrettably hydroxychloroquine is not effective for COVID-19.”
Dr Kelly previously said “it doesn’t work”.
Dr Coatsworth said World Health Organisation trials found “no benefit at all from the treatment”.
At the time, Mr Kelly claimed in a Facebook post that Dr Coatsworth “had misled the Australian public” about hydroxychloroquine “and should resign”.
The two men later had a private meeting to discuss the drug.
Later, on September 8, Mr Kelly emailed the DCMO a French study from the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection.
That paper suggested “an oral combination of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and zinc” as a COVID treatment.
That same day, Mr Kelly posted the study to his Facebook page, with the all-caps headline “GAME OVER FOR HCQ DENIERS – TIME TO LIFT ALL THE LOCKDOWNS”. Nearly 6000 people ‘liked’ that post.
In the email, Mr Kelly told Dr Coatsworth he would be a “hero” if he changed tack on the drug.
“If you simply say, ‘when the facts change, we change our opinion – the latest evidence shows that that state bans on doctors prescribing HCQ to Covid infected patients should be lifted’ – you’ll be a hero to millions,” Mr Kelly wrote.
Dr Coatsworth forwarded Mr Kelly’s email to an adviser in the health department’s Technology Assessment and Access Division. That adviser replied on September 18, poking numerous holes in the research supplied by Mr Kelly.
“Essentially it is expert opinion, supported – at least regarding the role of HCQ – by a body of evidence in a way that raises significant methodological concerns,” the adviser said of the French study.
“Exclusion of key papers is a concern. These concerns undermine the authors’ conclusions, at least regarding the role of HCQ.”
Mr Kelly also supplied another paper, a review of existing literature on hydroxychloroquine, written by an orthopedic surgeon from Chicago.
“In my opinion it is a low-quality systematic review and the authors’ conclusions should be seen in that light,” the department’s medical adviser wrote to Dr Coatsworth.
That paper was also examined by the ABC’s Media Watch in October, with epidemiologists and public health experts calling it “unscientific”, “meaningless” and “garbage”.
In his email to Dr Coatsworth, the medical adviser urged caution about considering such papers.
“These papers can’t be viewed in isolation (even setting aside their methodological weaknesses). Consideration must be given to the overall body of evidence and expert opinion regarding the role of HCQ in COVID-19,” they wrote.
“Again in my opinion, these papers are not sufficiently well argued or supported to challenge the generally prevailing global medical view about the role of HCQ as a treatment in COVID-19.”
Craig Kelly stands by claims
In a response to TND, Mr Kelly stood by his hydroxychloroquine support.
“This letter was dated 18th September, referring to just two studies published earlier. There are now 192 published studies on HCQ in relation to COVID – the majority of them peer reviewed,” he said.
The Member for Hughes also said he wasn’t trying to force anyone to take the drug – just that he wanted people to have the option, in consultation with their doctor, if they wished.
Mr Kelly also pointed to anecdotal evidence from doctors in the United States and Europe, who claimed they had had success in treating some patients with hydroxychloroquine.
“If you had an elderly relative that had COVID, would you be happy for them to be denied access to this treatment protocol?” he said.
“That’s why I’ve been prepared to cop the abuse I have on this issue.”
Doctors, MPs criticise Craig Kelly
In a statement, the health department told TND it did not support using the drug.
“A number of international trials have found no clinical benefit from using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19,” a spokesperson said.
They said a “low dose” trial of the drug was currently being carried out by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
On Wednesday, Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid said people “shouldn’t believe everything that’s published on the internet about health, because there’s all sorts of crackpot ideas out there”.
“Unfortunately, some of these ideas are coming from prominent people who should know better,” he told Channel Nine.
Actually @M_McCormackMP facts aren’t contentious. Facts are facts. And the fact is; Craig Kelly's campaign of medical disinformation is undermining our health officials and should be called out. pic.twitter.com/6C0lBHxdT3
— Chris Bowen (@Bowenchris) January 12, 2021
Labor and the Greens have called for Mr Kelly to be reprimanded by federal ministers.
Labor’s shadow health minister Chris Bowen slammed the Liberal MP for spreading “misinformation”, while leader Anthony Albanese called it “unforgivable”.
Acting Greens leader Nick McKim said Mr Kelly was “undermining trust in the government’s response to COVID-19 – potentially jeopardising our ability to reach herd immunity.”
“Craig Kelly’s wackjob conspiracy theories have gone too far, for too long. Scott Morrison must put his foot down,” Senator Nick McKim said.