As the search continues for COVID-19 treatment and the FDA has yet to approve treatments, people may end up searching for unproven therapies. Therefore, when President Donald Trump and CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, endorsed the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, it brought the issue of misinformation to the public; leading to negative consequences.
According to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a team of researchers at Oxford, Harvard, UC San Diego and Johns Hopkins used Americans' Google searches to track how the public began shopping for these unproven drugs soon after these high-prole endorsements.
"We know that high-profile endorsements matter in advertising, so it stands to reason that these endorsements could spur people to seek out these medications" says Michael Liu, a graduate student at Oxford and the study's first author.
Estimating the Effect of Misinformation
The study used Google Trends, a public archive of Google searches, to track searches originating from the U.S. between February 1 and March 29, 2020 related to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. This time period included the first endorsement by Musk on March 16, President Trump's first endorsement on March 19, and the first reported chloroquine poisoning in the U.S.
"We specifically wanted to know if people were looking to buy these drugs, instead of just looking to learn more about them," says John Ayers, study co-author, co-founder of the Center for Data Driven Health at the Qualcomm Institute, and Vice Chief of Innovation in the Division of Infectious Disease & Global Public Health, both at UC San Diego.
According to the report, the study tracked all Google searches mentioning the drugs "chloroquine" or "hydroxychloroquine" in combination with "buy", "order", "Walmart", "eBay", or "Amazon." The team then compared the phrases' search frequency over that time frame with a hypothetical scenario in which there were no high-profile endorsements, based on historical search trends for the same terms.
Searches for purchasing chloroquine were 442% higher and searches for hydroxychloroquine were 1,389% higher following their public endorsements. In addition, the first and largest spikes in searches coincided with Musk's Twitter endorsement and Trump's first endorsement.
Even after widespread reports of a fatal chloroquine poisoning in Arizona on March 23, queries for purchasing either chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine remained elevated. Searches for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were 212% and 1,167% greater than expected following the first reported poisoning through the end of observation March 29.
"In absolute terms, we estimate there were more than 200,000 total Google searches for buying these two drugs in only 14 days following high-profile endorsements. This could be evidence that thousands of Americans were interested in purchasing these drugs," says Mark Dredze, study co-author and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Lui claims that Musk's and Trump's endorsements are especially troublesome for three reasons:
- These treatments have inconclusive clinical efficacy.
- The drugs have potentially fatal side effects.
- Chloroquine-containing products such as aquarium cleaner are commercially available to the public without a medical prescription.