U.S. President Donald Trump is not a doctor, but he tried playing one on live TV Thursday by throwing out unproven guesses for stopping the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed tens of thousands of American citizens.
Speaking from the White House during his daily press briefing, the former real estate mogul and reality TV star floated the idea of injecting oneself with bleach or blasting the virus with ultraviolet light and heat — i.e. tanning — as potential tactics for killing the virus that causes COVID-19. He also raised the possibility of shining light inside the body to kill the virus.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the only real medical expert in the room from Trump’s team, only half-smiled and blinked in astonishment. The president also did not present any hard evidence of his claims, although he did trot out his top science official with the Department of Homeland Security to pitch the sunlight idea based on anecdotal evidence.
“Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked? But you’re going to test it?” Trump said to William Bryan, the DHS official who initially presented the anecdotal sunlight idea.
Trump continued: “And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do, either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that, too? Sounds interesting.”
The president then veered into discussing another false cure that has been circulating among far-right communities for weeks: bleach.
“I see that disinfectant, it knocks it out. In a minute. One minute,” Trump said at the briefing, before turning at the lectern to Birx, who was sitting on the sidelines of the news conference. Birx could be seen smiling, tight-lipped, as Trump pitched his theories to her in front of a national audience.
“And is there a way that we can do something like that, by injection inside or, or, almost a cleaning?” Trump said, directing his words at Birx. “Because you see, it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number … so it’d be interesting to check.”
Doctors have checked. Injecting yourself with bleach — a poison — will make you sick, and you shouldn’t do it, as many experts were quick to point out after Trump made the remarks.
“This is one of the most dangerous and idiotic suggestions made so far in how one might actually treat COVID-19,” Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia in Britain, told Reuters.
Drinking or injecting disinfectant is more likely to kill humans than the virus, Hunter said.
“It is hugely irresponsible because, sadly, there are people around the world who might believe this sort of nonsense and try it out for themselves,” he said.
Reckitt Benckiser, which makes Lysol cleaning products, also warned against using disinfectant in any way on the human body.
“We must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” the company said in an emphatic statement.
Americans have already been ingesting more disinfectant than normal during the coronavirus crisis, according to research released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this month. CDC researchers saw a 20.4 per cent spike in calls to poison control related to ingesting disinfectant in March compared to the same period of time in 2019.
In terms of Trump’s sunlight theory, he has frequently imagined a world in which the virus disappears in the spring or summer heat, although scientists have found no evidence to support that belief. Ultraviolet light has been shown to kill virus droplets in the air, but doctors say there is no way to use it on patients.
“Neither sitting in the sun nor heating will kill a virus replicating in an individual patient’s internal organs,” said Penny Ward, a professor in pharmaceutical medicine at Kings College London and chair of the education and standards committee of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine.
“Drinking bleach kills. Injecting bleach kills faster. Don’t do either!” she added.
It’s not the first time Trump has offered shaky medical advice without concrete evidence to back it up. The president has spent the last month touting the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria and lupus drug, based on one small study out of France.
Trump’s recommendation triggered a flood of reaction across the world, with countries rushing to stockpile the drug while creating shortages for lupus patients who needed it.
Publishers behind the French study have since come out to call it flawed, and a recent, larger study of patients at veterans hospitals in the U.S. suggests the drug might actually do more harm than good.
Trump evaded a question about hydroxychloroquine on Thursday with a muddled answer about its effectiveness.
“We’ve had a lot of very good results, and we had some results that perhaps aren’t so good. I don’t know,” Trump said. When pressed about the veterans hospitals, Trump said he hadn’t read the study.
Trump claimed on Friday that he was being sarcastic about the disinfectant to bait reporters, despite video evidence that shows he was addressing his experts, not the media with his questions.
“I was asking the question sarcastically to reporters like you, just to see what would happen,” Trump claimed at the White House on Friday afternoon.
He then launched into a meandering rant about sunlight.
His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, pointed the finger at media coverage in a statement about Trump’s medical advice.
“President Trump has repeatedly said that Americans should consult with medical doctors regarding coronavirus treatment, a point that he emphasized again during yesterday’s briefing,” she said.
The U.S. Surgeon General also recommended talking to doctors before trying any potential medical treatment.
Trump touted his own medical guesses at the press briefing on Thursday, while repeatedly directing the country’s top minds to spend time and money on pursuing them.
“I would like you to speak to the medical doctors to see if there’s any way that you can apply light and heat to cure, you know — if you could,” he said. “And maybe you can, maybe you can’t …
“I’m not a doctor, but I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what,” Trump said, pointing to his head.
A reporter then pressed Trump on the issue, saying: “But sir, you’re the president.”
“Deborah, have you heard of that?” Trump said, turning to Birx. “The heat and the light, relative to certain viruses, yes, but relative to this virus.”
“Not as a treatment,” Birx said, before attempting to indulge the president’s theory. “I mean, certainly, fever is a good thing. When you have a fever, it helps your body respond. But not as — I’ve not seen heat or light —”
“I think it’s a great thing to look at,” Trump said.
The reporter then pressed Trump again, saying: “People are tuning into these briefings. They want to get information and guidance and want to know what to do. They’re not looking for a rumour.”
“Hey, Phil,” Trump responded. “I’m the president and you’re fake news.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.
— With files from Reuters, the Associated Press and Global News’ Meghan Collie