- Australian MP Craig Kelly has repeatedly promoted experimental cures for COVID-19, despite credible evidence and all major reputable medical organisations recommending against their use.
- In internal emails obtained by Business Insider, the heads of Australia’s medical regulator and the body tasked with evaluating research about COVID-19 treatments repeatedly rejected Kelly’s pleas to recommend the use of the ‘cures’.
- After responding to the politician’s claims, government medical experts said that Kelly was incorrectly interpreting studies and denied they had sought to stop him from publishing a letter in Australian newspapers.
- Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.
A week before Christmas, federal MP Craig Kelly posted to his official Facebook Page about an experimental COVID-19 treatment widely rejected by the international medical community.
Sharing an Italian article that he interpreted using Google Translate, the Australian federal politician claimed that a “day of reckoning” was coming for the government’s health experts and the media for their refusal to heed his medical advice to recommend the drug.
“Someone [sic] have already put in a [freedom of information request] for all my correspondence to the TGA and the National Covid Evidence Taskforce – where I had repeatedly documented the evidence they were ignoring,” the Australian politician wrote on Facebook.
But emails between Kelly and public servants at the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) obtained by Business Insider Australia through a freedom of information request reveal something different.
In between complaints from the public about Kelly’s promotion of an experimental drug, the documents show a politician contacting Australia’s top doctors during a pandemic to share fringe studies often taken out of context or misinterpreted to argue against decisions made by Australia’s top medical experts based on reputable, peer-reviewed science.
Even after being told why his readings of the studies were flawed, Kelly continued to publicly campaign on these flawed interpretations and, in one case, alleged that a government body was censoring him and fellow backbencher George Christensen.
With one of the biggest audiences on Facebook of any Australian politician, the controversial government MP has used his outsized platform to repeatedly promote misinformation and conspiracies theories.
While mostly focusing onclimate change skepticism and denial until 2020, Kelly spent much of last year promoting unproven treatments, opposing lockdowns and claiming masks don’t work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This correspondence with the TGA shows Kelly — who has no medical training — ignoring expert advice from Australia’s top experts in favour of his own research.
Fringe studies and misinterpreted conclusions used to argue for disproven COVID-19 cure
On 14 August, during a week when there were a national average of 360 COVID-19 cases per day, Kelly emailed chair of the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce Associate Professor Julian Elliot with a list of ten questions about the taskforce’s consideration of the clinical evidence supporting the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and other substances to treat COVID-19.
“Given the time critical nature of the issues confronting the nation currently, I would greatly appreciate your earliest reply,” Kelly wrote.
The next day, Elliot wrote back outlining how the taskforce had “hundreds of experts clinicians [sic] from around Australia [who] contribute many hours every week to review the latest research”.
He answered each of Kelly’s questions, dispelling various claims and ultimately standing by the taskforce’s decision to not recommend the drug.
Three weeks later, Kelly wrote back with thanks — but remained “greatly concerned that the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce has made a serious mistake.”
He enclosed more links to studies, an interview with a French doctor and his personal recommendations for the taskforce.
Following another similar email sent from Kelly, Elliot responded with a shorter email saying he would pass on the studies and reiterating his belief in the taskforce’s processes.
Kelly ignored this, responding with an email that refers to a “further meta-analysis study” while linking to a local file on his computer that would be inaccessible to the recipient.
It was around this time that Kelly began emailing his concerns to the adjunct Professor John Skerritt, who leads Australia’s medical regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), cc-ing in Health Minister Greg Hunt’s parliamentary email address.
In an email that includes several links, quoted passages that are hundreds of words in length, and highlighted text, Kelly says that the “the TGA’s current recommends [sic] the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 can longer be sustained and should be urgently reviewed.”
“I think that Mr Kelly has misread the papers”
Soon after, Skerritt forwards Kelly’s emails to two other recipients, including Department of Health first secretary Jane Cook.
Skerritt wrote that he didn’t want to get involved with a “back and forwards” with Kelly, and said that the MP’s attempt to discredit a study’s finding that hydroxychloroquine didn’t help COVID-19 patients was based on an incorrect reading.
“I think that Mr Kelly has misread the papers,” he wrote from his BlackBerry.
After Cook advised that Skerritt respond directly to Kelly, the head of the TGA wrote back to Kelly’s on 13 September to reaffirm the TGA’s position.
“It is also based on the overwhelming balance of evidence thus far, and the consensus view of major global medicines regulators and health departments, with whom I am in very regular conduct [sic] around the progress of clinical trials for potential therapeutics for COVID-19,” he wrote.
Skerritt rejected one particular claim — that a major study that found no benefit of hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 patients had actually mistakenly tested another drug, hydroxyquinoline — as absurd.
“I also contend that it would be inconceivable that the investigators confused hydroxychloroquine with another agent – the trial was conducted across 176 UK hospitals and the trial design, including the doses used, were approved by the UK regulator (MHRA) prior to the patients being treated,” he wrote.
Despite this, Kelly would go on to share this claim on Facebook repeatedly.
Skerritt signs off the email by conceding that, while there was no reason to prescribe hydroxychloroquine now, there may be a “sweet spot” of dosing that could be proven in the future.
The Member for Hughes seized on his possibility and continued to send multiple emails about more studies that he claimed show the merits of the drug, which Skerritt parried away as being either not peer-reviewed or – by the author’s own admission – in need of future studies.
It is at this point Skerritt loops in Elliot, who responds by sending through his own correspondence with Kelly.
“Thank you for sharing the thread […] It is so important that we continue to disseminate clear, consistent and evidence based information at this time of great anxiety,” Elliot wrote.
An accusation of censorship
A week later, Kelly sent through a handful of new studies as well as an accusation that the TGA had stopped newspapers from printing a letter written by George Christensen and himself about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine.
“Keeping in mind that I believe that refusing to publish a letter written by two members of Parliament (even when payment is offered to buy space in that newspaper) is inconsistent with our constitutionally enshrined rights of free political communication,” he wrote to Skerritt on 28 September.
“I ask you to confirm that TGA’s instruction to our media prohibits or does not prohibit the publication of this letter in major newspapers by two members of the Federal Parliament,” he added.
Exactly half an hour later at 10.08pm, Skerritt sent back sharp rebuke of the claims.
“I can confirm unreservedly that have been no such instructions from TGA to newspapers not to print anything in regards to hydroxychloroquine,” he wrote.
“And frankly, I doubt that the media would accept such direction from a government department in any event.”
Skerritt notes that it is illegal to promote prescription medicines in Australia, and offered an alternative theory.
“It is possible that the legal advisers to the newspapers considered this in their advice to you and Mr Christensen,” he concluded.
Undeterred, Kelly responded two days later drawing his attention to an online letter promoting the anti-malarial drug that he claims is signed by 600 Belgian doctors.
“I would again respectfully request the most urgent re-consideration of the TGA’s and Covid National Evidence Taskforce recommendations on HCQ to treat [sic] covid,” he emailed.
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