Health and Science

CEO of largest NY health provider: Only science can dictate coronavirus drug treatments

Key Points
  • Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling on Thursday called for caution regarding drug treatments for COVID-19. 
  • "You've got to let the science dictate, because if you don't, you'll do damage to people," Dowling told CNBC. 
  • Dr. Michael Ackerman of the Mayo Clinic added "respect, not fear" was needed for the anti-malaria drugs being considered as potential COVID-19 treatments. 
Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling on coronavirus testing and hospital preparations

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling on Thursday called for caution regarding potential drug treatments for COVID-19. 

"You can't let politics dictate, what people would like to see dictate," Dowling said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street." "You've got to let the science dictate, because if you don't, you'll do damage to people." 

Dowling, whose 23-hospital system is the largest health-care provider in New York state, said it is OK to be optimistic about the experimental treatments underway, "but you've got to wait until you can prove" that it is effective in treating COVID-19.

In fact, Dowling said he was personally optimistic about some of the trials underway at Northwell Health's hospitals. The health system is working with Regeneron and Gilead Sciences to test the efficacy of existing drugs. 

Northwell Health does not have "definitive results yet," Dowling cautioned. 

"But I am pretty certain that within the next week or two we're going to find out that one or more of these drugs do make a difference and that would obviously change the landscape when that happens," said Dowling. 

The drugs in trial at Northwell Health are Gilead Sciences' remdesivir and sarilumab, which was developed by Regeneron and Sanofi, according to the Long Island Press

New York has more than 33,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday morning, far more than any other state in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The country as a whole has more than 69,000 cases. 

'Not fear, but respect'

Mayo Clinic: Off-label drugs used for COVID-19 treatment come with cardiac risks

Dowling's calls for caution regarding COVID-19 treatments were echoed earlier Thursday by Dr. Michael Ackerman, a genetic cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. 

Ackerman said on CNBC's "Squawk Box" that drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, two anti-malaria treatments, have very serious potential side effects. As such, anyone who hopes that the drugs could also be effective in treating COVID-19 need to keep that in mind, Ackerman said. 

The drugs have the "potential to prolong the heart's QT interval," Ackerman said, which "increases the patient's chance for the heart to spin electrically out of control into a potentially dangerous heart rhythm." 

Chloroquine gained attention earlier in March after a small, controversial study of 36 COVID-19 patients in France was published. It found that most patients taking the drug cleared the coronavirus from their system faster than those who did not.

There are multiple clinical trials for chloroquine's effectiveness in treating COVID-19 listed on the National Institutes of Health website, and President Donald Trump has touted it as a potential treatment. The drug has been around for decades and been used to treat malaria as well as some autoimmune disorders. 

Ackerman emphasized that he was not an epidemiologist weighing in on how well the drugs may treat COVID-19. He said he's a cardiologist who just wants people to be mindful of the full range of potential side effects.

"I hope there is therapeutic efficacy, and if there is we're going to be using them even more than we already are and we need to make people aware of this side effect. It's manageable,"  Ackerman explained.

"In the meantime we have to do everything to make sure that there is a healthy dose of respect — not fear, but respect — for navigating the QT issue and the potential for drug-induced sudden death," Ackerman said. 

— CNBC's Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.