Since the first coronavirus case was diagnosed in the United States more than three months ago, President Donald Trump has repeatedly made assertions about the illness and floated treatments that medical experts in his own administration have had to walk back.
From floating the idea in February that the virus would “miraculously” disappear, to touting an untested anti-malaria drug at his daily press conferences, Trump has often ventured far afield of science to put a positive light on the pandemic.
The latest example of that came Thursday, when Trump suggested that scientists look into whether ultraviolet light or disinfectants could play some role in treating patients with the disease. His remarks prompted a rebuke from doctors and urgent warnings from state health agencies warning against self-treatment.
As the controversy mushroomed, the White House blamed the media for sensationalizing his remarks. The president later said he was being sarcastic. But the episode was only the latest in a pattern of questionable claims or off-the-cuff remarks the president has made about the virus in recent weeks.
Can light treat the coronavirus?
Noting a government study on the impact sunlight has on killing coronavirus on surfaces and in the air, Trump leaped to the idea of whether the method could be used for treating patients as well. He suggested that scientists should look into whether bringing “light inside the body” could have some effect.
“Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous – whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light – and I think you said that that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it,” Trump said to a health official Thursday. “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.”
Bill Bryan, undersecretary of science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, cautioned against changing behavior based on the study. Bryan said it would be “irresponsible” to suggest the summer would “totally kill the virus.”
Jesse Goodman, the former chief scientistof the Food and Drug Administrationand now a Georgetown University professor and attending physician, told USA TODAY the amount of heat and light needed to kill the virus would be harmful to healthycells within the body. The idea of using light to treat the virus, he said, was “not something we now have evidence to support.”
Trump touts power of disinfectants
Trump didn’t stop at light, however. He also noted that the Department of Homeland Security was studying the effect disinfectants – on surfaces – could have on the coronavirus. The president again wondered aloud whether that impact could be translated somehow into fighting the virus in people.
“And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute,” Trump said. “And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that.”
Trump’s remarks drew a sharp response from state health officials, doctors and even the parent company of the nation’s best-known spray disinfectant, Lysol. Several of those entities reported receiving phone calls from Americans who had questions about disinfectants and warned Americans against ingesting them.
Reckitt Benckiser Group, the parent company of Lysol, posted a statement early Friday asserting that “we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body.”
Comparisons with the flu
For weeks, Trump compared coronavirus to seasonal flu, suggesting Americans might be overreacting to the new virus because it wouldn’t be much worse.
On March 9, he wrote on Twitter that even though “37,000 Americans died from the common Flu” last year, “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”
“You lose 27,000 people to the common flu,” Trump said at a rally in March. “Think of it. Last year was approximately 36,000 people died, so we are working hard on it, and we are going to come up with some really great solutions.”
When critics noted that the death rate from coronavirus appeared to be much higher than the seasonal flu, Trump questioned the death rate provided by the World Health Organization. His argument was that many people infected by the virus never get tested, lowering the number of confirmed cases and artificially driving up the death rate. While that is true, the death rate has remained relatively consistent with the initial WHO projections.
About 5.7% of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States have resulted in death, according to Johns Hopkins University.