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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and President Donald Trump listen during a coronavirus news conference at the White House on March 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Vucci) Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and President Donald Trump listen during a coronavirus news conference at the White House on March 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Vucci)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and President Donald Trump listen during a coronavirus news conference at the White House on March 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Vucci)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy March 24, 2020

Drinking chloroquine fish-tank cleaner won’t stop the coronavirus. It might kill you

If Your Time is short

  • Fish-tank cleaners containing chloroquine cannot be substituted for prescription drugs used to treat malaria.

  • A man in Arizona recently died, and his wife was hospitalized, after the couple ingested the fish-tank cleaner to avoid contracting the coronavirus. 

  • The FDA says you should not take chloroquine unless it has been prescribed by a doctor and obtained from a legitimate source.

An Arizona man is dead and his wife was hospitalized after the couple ingested a fish-tank solvent with chloroquine phosphate, the same active ingredient found in anti-malarial drugs that President Donald Trump has hailed as a possible treatment for the novel coronavirus.

The woman told NBC News that the couple thought the drug compound Trump mentioned in a televised press conference was the same as the fish-tank cleaner they had in their home pantry.

The two are not the same. Chloroquine, also known as chloroquine phosphate, is used in anti-malarial drugs available in the U.S. by prescription only, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A variant, hydroxychloroquine, is an arthritis medicine that can also prevent malaria. 

The husband and wife were not alone in their confusion. A number of headlines describing the fatal mishap, including from mainstream news outlets, did not make it clear that the couple ingested fish-tank cleaner, rather than the drug form of chloroquine. 

One headline published before the Arizona couple’s accident missed the distinction entirely.

"Fish tank additive may treat coronavirus," said a March 20 headline from Valley News Live, a local news network serving TV stations in North Dakota.

That headline is wrong. Fish-tank cleaners containing chloroquine phosphate are not the same as the prescription drugs used for malaria. Nor are they suitable for human consumption.

Moreover, as anti-viral drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have shown the ability to combat some diseases, but they have not yet been proven to disrupt COVID-19. 

RELATED: A 100% COVID-19 cure? No, chloroquine effectiveness only anecdotal

Valley News Live did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

What happened in Arizona

Officials from Banner Health, the Phoenix hospital system that treated the husband and wife, warned in a March 23 statement against self-medicating and said the couple’s case was a cautionary tale. The man who died was in his 60s, as is his wife, the statement said.

The woman later told NBC News that the solvent made her and her husband feel "dizzy and hot." She said she started vomiting and her husband developed respiratory problems.

She said that she had seen Trump talk in a press conference about the promise of chloroquine as a possible coronavirus cure, and that she had the fish-tank cleaner stored away.

Featured Fact-check

"We saw his press conference. It was on a lot, actually," she said. "I had it in the house because I used to have koi fish."

"I just saw it sitting on the back shelf and said, ‘Hey, isn’t that that stuff they’re talking about on TV?’" she said. She and her husband mixed about one teaspoon each with soda and drank the concoction as a preventative measure, she said.

Trump has touted chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as potential coronavirus treatments, and he tweeted that hydroxychloroquine, combined with an antibiotic called azithromycin, could "be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine."

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said there had only been anecdotal evidence that the drugs could knock down COVID-19. The drugs are currently being studied and tested in clinical trials, according to the CDC.

According to the New York Times, prices for the fish-tank additive have skyrocketed on eBay as the coronavirus has continued to spread through the U.S. and around the world.

Don’t drink the fish cleaner

Drugs containing chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are not yet proven to prevent, treat or cure patients of the coronavirus, as we’ve noted.

A recent French study of 20 COVID-19 patients indicated that the prescription-drug version of chloroquine might help treat the disease. And the CDC notes that a study in China found that patients treated with chloroquine "had clinical and virologic benefit versus a comparison group."

More study is still needed. "There are no US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs specifically for the treatment of patients with COVID-19," the CDC says on its website.

But the fish-tank cleaner is a definite no-no. In a statement, the FDA said Americans should be wary of products that claim to prevent, treat, diagnose or cure COVID-19.

"Products marketed for veterinary use or ‘for research only,’ or otherwise not for human consumption have not been evaluated for safety and should never be used," the FDA said. "The FDA is aware that chloroquine is marketed as an unapproved drug to treat external parasites in aquarium fish, but these products have not been evaluated by FDA to determine if they are safe, effective, properly manufactured, and adequately labeled."

"Don’t take any form of chloroquine unless it has been prescribed for you and obtained from legitimate sources," the agency said.

Our ruling

A Valley News Live headline said, "Fish tank additive may treat coronavirus."

Chloroquine, a compound commonly found in fish-tank cleaners, also forms the basis of a prescription drug used for malaria. There are studies underway to conclude whether that drug, and a variant called hydroxychloroquine, could combat the coronavirus.

But the fish-tank cleaner is not the same as the prescription drug, and it shouldn’t be substituted as such. A man in Arizona recently died from ingesting it.

We rate this statement False.

Our Sources

Valley News Live, "Old drug, new tricks? Fish tank additive may treat coronavirus," March 20, 2020

Banner Health, "Banner Health experts warn against self-medicating to prevent or treat COVID-19," March 23, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Medicines for the Prevention of Malaria While Traveling Chloroquine (Aralen™)," accessed March 24, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Medicines for the Prevention of Malaria While Traveling Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil™)," accessed March 24, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Information for Clinicians on Therapeutic Options for COVID-19 Patients," March 21, 2020

NPR, "Man Dies, Woman Hospitalized After Taking Form Of Chloroquine To Prevent COVID-19," March 24, 2020

The Guardian, "Arizona man dies after taking coronavirus 'cure' Trump touted with false claims," March 24, 2020

CBS News, "Arizona man dies, wife ill after taking drug touted as virus treatment: 'Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure,'" March 24, 2020

The Washington Post, "A man thought aquarium cleaner with the same name as the anti-viral drug chloroquine would prevent coronavirus. It killed him," March 24, 2020

CNN, "Fearing coronavirus, Arizona man dies after taking a form of chloroquine used to treat aquariums," March 24, 2020

The New York Times, "Man Fatally Poisons Himself While Self-Medicating for Coronavirus, Doctor Says," March 24, 2020

Fox News, "Arizona man dies after self-medicating to treat coronavirus," March 24, 2020

Axios, "Man dies after self-medicating with chloroquine," March 23, 2020

U.S. News, "Arizona Man Dies After Taking Chloroquine for Coronavirus," March 23, 2020

Buzzfeed News, "A Man Died After Self-Medicating With A Drug Trump Promoted As A Potential Treatment For The Coronavirus," March 23, 2020

Time, "Arizona Man Dies After Taking Chemical in Coronavirus Treatment Touted by President Trump," March 23, 2020

ABC News, "Man dies after ingesting aquarium product containing chloroquine: Hospital network," March 23, 2020

NBC News, "Man dies after ingesting chloroquine in an attempt to prevent coronavirus," March 23, 2020

Donald J. Trump on Twitter, March 21, 2020

PolitiFact, "A 100% COVID-19 cure? No, chloroquine effectiveness only anecdotal," March 23, 2020

Email interview with Michael Felberbaum, senior advisor in media affairs at the Food and Drug Administration, March 24, 2020

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Drinking chloroquine fish-tank cleaner won’t stop the coronavirus. It might kill you

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