WASHINGTON (CN) — During the 1918 pandemic, quack doctors and con men prescribed consuming kerosene — dispensed atop a lump of sugar, of course — to ward off influenza.
It did not, would not and could not work, but over a century later, President Donald Trump stood in the James Brady briefing room of the White House and ruminated on the idea of mainlining disinfectants.
“I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that,” Trump said Thursday night.
His remarks followed a presentation from William Bryan, the acting undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, where Bryan referred to a U.S. Army study of various tests on the novel coronavirus in saliva droplets. On some surfaces, isopropyl alcohol could kill the virus in just 30 seconds, and bleach worked in five minutes on some surfaces, or 30 seconds if hit with isopropyl alcohol.
The study, which is not yet public and also has not been peer reviewed, also suggests that the respiratory virus may die out on nonporous surfaces with hotter, more humid temperatures or when exposed to significant amounts of ultraviolet light.
On this specific point, the National Academies of Sciences has found supportive, peer-reviewed data, but the findings remain inconclusive.
What is conclusive, however, is that drinking bleach or injecting disinfectants into the body will result in injury or death.
The national discussion triggered Reckitt Benckiser, the company that makes disinfectants Lysol and Dettol, to issue a statement on Friday.
“As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection or ingestion or any other route),” the company said.
As sharp warnings from doctors, medical and public health experts poured in, suggesting Americans ignore any advice to ingest disinfectant, the White House said Trump’s nationally broadcast remarks were taken out of context.
“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,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said before offering another refrain long rote for the Trump administration.
“Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines,” she added.
Anna Yeung-Cheung, a professor of biology, virology and infectious disease at Manhattanville College in New York, told Courthouse News about her bafflement in hearing Trump’s comments Thursday.
“He’s the president of the United States. I understand he’s not a scientist, but sometimes, I believe, you need to be much more careful in what you’re saying,” she said. “I understand we have freedom of speech, but coming from a leader, it’s not just a joke.”
So jarring were the remarks that a former student called Yeung-Cheung upon seeing the briefing to ask: “What is happening?”
The president has a history of making specious medical claims.
In March, he repeatedly asserted that vaccines for coronavirus would be ready in months.
This prompted regular reminders from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and members of the task force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease, to emphasize that vaccine deployment is over a year away.
His intentions aside, Trump’s widespread and public pumping of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer” treatment for Covid-19 has already proved damaging.
Last month, following Trump’s weeks of effusive praise of hydroxychloroquine, a husband and wife in their 60s in Arizona attempted to ward off the virus by treating themselves with a chemical additive used to clean fish tanks known as chloroquine phosphate.
While containing a similar element to the anti-malarial drug, chloroquine phosphate is not intended for that use and, according to Banner Health, it was a tangle of misinformation that led to the couple ingesting the drug, the husband dying, and the wife coming under critical care.
A study released last week by the Department of Veterans Affairs found patients hospitalized with Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, experienced no benefit from taking hydroxychloroquine.
As is common of this early pandemic research, this study is also not yet peer reviewed. It found higher mortality rates among those treated with the drug than those who were not: over 27% of patients treated with hydroxychloroquine died compared with the 11.4% death rate among those who did not take it.
With viable, safe treatments still far off, and with his penchant for making patently false medical claims — like wind turbines causing cancer — it is unlikely that the lure of a quick fix will vanish from the president’s mind.
“He must be more careful, his team must be more careful,” Yeung-Cheung said before noting how the very warnings against ingestion on disinfectants couldn’t be more clear. “I don’t think any medical professional or scientist would say, yes, you can try this.”