Dr. Richard Bartlett, a veteran primary care and emergency room doctor in Odessa, says he recognized early in the pandemic that coronavirus caused inflammation, first in the lungs and then spreading to other organs. To target the initial inflammation, Bartlett turned to budesonide, an inhaled corticosteroid patented in 1973 and commonly prescribed for asthma patients.
“We started treating patients with a three-part protocol that included inhaled budesonide,” Bartlett told The Texan. “Over and over again we found it was effective in preventing severe illness.”
In addition to budesonide, Bartlett gave his patients the antibiotic clarithromycin along with aspirin. He explained that COVID-19-related deaths are often due to a secondary bacterial pneumonia after a primary viral pneumonia and that his treatment protocol halted the sequence, targeted infection, and prevented clotting.
“With budesonide, we were able to move patients off the ventilator in the ICU in Odessa hospitals,” said Bartlett.
Noting the low cost of the drug — about $3 per treatment — Bartlett in several 2020 interviews called budesonide a classic silver bullet treatment since it was a “simple solution to a complex problem.” But some critics, including former chief medical advisor to the president Dr. Anthony Fauci, dismissed the treatment as merely a placebo.
Media interviews with Bartlett were censored by YouTube and other platforms, and outlets such as FOX San Francisco ran segments in 2020 dismissing budesonide as a coronavirus treatment. Houston television station KHOU reported the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statement that there was no known treatment for COVID-19 and therefore concluded that Bartlett’s claim was “false.” A few doctors even suggested the treatment could be harmful.
Despite the criticism, Bartlett’s treatment protocol drew interest, and in 2021 researchers at the University of Oxford found that inhaled budesonide in the early stages of COVID-19 reduced the relative risk of requiring urgent care or hospitalization by 90 percent.
Subsequent studies confirmed budesonide’s antiviral effect and use for preventing hospitalization and death, but while India and other countries added the drug to their early treatment protocols, the CDC and the World Health Organization have not done so.
Now a new Brazilian study published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine has found that inhaled budesonide combined with a serotonin reuptake inhibitor known as fluvoxamine significantly reduced the need for advanced medical care for COVID-19 in high-risk populations.
“The second most populous country in the world, India, and Australia and others in the world have added budesonide to their early treatment strategy, and it all started here in Texas,” said Bartlett. “But has any federal or state agency done so? No, and to their shame.”
Along with other doctors promoting early treatment protocols such as Dr. Mary Talley Bowden, Bartlett’s work prompted complaints to the Texas Medical Board (TMB).
Since TMB allows for anonymous complaints filed by non-patients or patient families, Bartlett said one complaint merely objected to his use of the term “silver bullet.”
“I’ve had four anonymous complaints turned in to the medical board, and all four of them have been dismissed as frivolous or invalid,” said Bartlett.
Although TMB reform legislation introduced by state Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) was approved in the Texas Senate this year, the House Committee on Public Health did not consider the proposal.
In addition to his early treatment protocol, Bartlett, who was a former advisor to Gov. Rick Perry on the Texas Health Disparities Taskforce, was tapped to assist with a monoclonal antibody infusion center in West Texas.
“We worked 11-hour days, six days a week,” said Barlett. “We were around highly contagious, very sick COVID patients all day long.”
He also laments the “unscientific” way hospitals treated patients in the early days of the pandemic.
“I stood up against dangerous, tyrannical hospital protocols,” said Bartlett. “One county hospital was literally putting plastic bags over the heads of COVID-positive patients.”
“The Hippocratic oath is first ‘do no harm’ and second, ‘alleviate human suffering,’” said Bartlett. “So, what happened in the last three years that we didn’t even treat people humanely? Where we wanted to decrease their suffering? It’s been crazy.”
Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott renewed the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration, which restrains local government orders related to the pandemic. In April, President Biden signed legislation ending the three-year national emergency.