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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

‘Magic’ weight-loss pills and Covid cures: Dr. Oz under the microscope

Misinformation about the coronavirus emanating from the Trump White House and conservative news sites helped politicize the nation’s response to the pandemic, with deadly consequences in many Republican areas of the country.

By: New York Times |
December 27, 2021 11:24:49 am
Dr. Mehmet Oz, host and producer of ÒThe Dr. Oz Show,Ó at ABC Studios in New York, Dec. 4, 2018. The celebrity physician, a candidate in Pennsylvania's Republican primary for Senate, has a long history of dispensing dubious medical advice on his daytime show and on Fox News. (Krista Schlueter/The New York Times)

A wealth of evidence now shows that malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine were not effective at treating Covid-19 and carried potential risks.

But in the early months of the pandemic, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician with a daytime TV show, positioned himself as one of the chief promoters of the drugs on Fox News. In the same be-the-best-you tone that he used to promote miracle weight-loss cures on “The Dr. Oz Show,” he elevated limited studies that he said showed wondrous promise.

His “jaw dropped,” he said, while reviewing one tiny study from France, calling it “a game changer.” In all, Oz promoted chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in more than 25 appearances on Fox in March and April 2020.

When a Veterans Affairs study showed that Covid-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine were more likely to die than untreated patients, that advocacy came to an abrupt halt.

“We are better off waiting for the randomized trials” that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, had been asking for, Oz told Fox viewers.

As Oz jumped last month into the Republican primary for Senate in Pennsylvania, where his celebrity gives him an important advantage in a crucial race, he tied his candidacy to the politics of the pandemic. He appealed to conservatives’ anger at mandates and shutdowns, and at the “people in charge” who, he said, “took away our freedom.”

But the entry into the race of the Cleveland-born heart surgeon, a son of Turkish immigrants who has been the host of “The Dr. Oz Show” since 2009, also brought renewed scrutiny to the blemishes on his record as one of America’s most famous doctors: his long history of dispensing dubious medical advice.

In ebullient language, he has often made sweeping claims based on thin evidence, which in multiple cases, like that of hydroxychloroquine, unraveled when studies he relied on were shown to be flawed.

Over the years, Oz, 61, has faced a bipartisan scolding before a Senate committee over claims he made about weight-loss pills, as well as the opposition of some of his physician peers, including a group of 10 doctors who sought his firing from Columbia University’s medical faculty in 2015, arguing that he had “repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine.” Oz questioned his critics’ motives, and Columbia took no action, saying it did not regulate faculty members’ participation in public discourse.

He has warned parents that apple juice contained unsafe levels of arsenic, advice that the Food and Drug Administration called “irresponsible and misleading.” In 2013, he warned women that carrying cellphones in their bras could cause breast cancer, a claim without scientific merit. In 2014, the British Medical Journal analyzed 80 recommendations on Oz’s show and concluded that fewer than half were supported by evidence.

Oz’s on-air medical advice on both his show and Fox News has taken on greater significance as he enters the political realm. His promotion of hydroxychloroquine grabbed then-President Donald Trump’s attention and contributed to early misinformation about the virus on the right.

“Information can harm — that’s the key thing we need to appreciate here,” said Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “His track record is pretty concerning. What we’ve seen so far does not instill confidence that this will help reasonable politics.”

Oz declined to be interviewed for this article. His campaign manager, Casey Contres, said in a statement that the doctor had always put patients first and fought the “established grain” in medicine.

“Dr. Oz believes it was truly unfortunate that Covid-19 became political and an excuse for the government and many in the corporate media to control the means of communication to suspend debate,” Contres added. “From the start, therapeutics meant to help with COVID-19 were regularly discounted by the medical establishment, and many great ideas were squashed and discredited.”

In using the politics of the pandemic to shape his campaign for an open seat — one pivotal to Senate control in the midterms — Oz may be in tune with primary voters in Pennsylvania. The race has drawn candidates echoing Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen, including Carla Sands, a former ambassador. Jeff Bartos, a developer, has called for a full audit of votes in the state. David McCormick, a hedge-fund executive married to a former Trump administration official, is expected to join the field soon.

The criticism Oz has received over the years for spreading misinformation has done little to tarnish his celebrity, as measured by his long-running TV program, whose distributor announced that the show would end in January when its host departs.

Still, misinformation about the coronavirus emanating from the Trump White House and conservative news sites helped politicize the nation’s response to the pandemic, with deadly consequences in many Republican areas of the country.

Although Oz spoke strongly in favor of masks and vaccines on Fox, his championing of unproven treatments early on sharply contradicted infectious-disease experts like Fauci who urged caution.

In Pennsylvania, as around the country, counties that voted by large margins for Trump in 2020 have had lower vaccination rates and higher death rates from COVID than counties that voted heavily for President Joe Biden.

Yet at one point early in the pandemic, Oz said that reopening schools was an “appetizing opportunity” that might cause the deaths of “only” 2% to 3% of the population. He later walked back the statement.

“I can’t believe he took the same oath that I did when we graduated,” said Dr. Val Arkoosh, an anesthesiologist and county official in the Philadelphia suburbs who is running in the Democratic primary for Senate. “That oath is about first doing no harm and always putting your patients first. I just think he’s a quack, to be honest.”

In reply to Arkoosh, Contres said that Oz had performed thousands of heart surgeries and had “helped countless patients live a better life.”

In Oz’s 2014 appearance before the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., quoted a bit of his TV sales patter back to him: “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type — it’s green coffee extract.”

Oz admitted to the senators that his claims often “don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.” A study he had cited about green-coffee bean extract was later retracted and described by federal regulators as “hopelessly flawed.” The supplier of the extract paid $3.5 million to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission.

Dr. David Gorski, a surgery professor at Wayne State University and longtime critic of alternative medicine, said Oz’s emergence as a Fox News authority on the coronavirus was no surprise to him.

“He could have gone the route of trying to be more reasonable and careful, vetting information, trying to reassure people where the science was still unsettled,” Gorski said. “But of course, that wouldn’t be Dr. Oz’s brand.”

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