WASHINGTON – 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 predicting 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.”
Members of Trump’s administration also weighed in.
“PLEASE always talk to your health provider first before administering any treatment/medication to yourself or a loved one,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said.
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.
Trump had touted the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, as a potential treatment for the coronavirus day after day at his White House press briefings, even though aides warned the drug was not clinically proven to be effective. Trump said the U.S. had acquired 30 million doses of the drug to administer to hospitals that wanted it.
“We’ve had a lot of good stories. A lot of good stories” about the drug, Trump said on April 8. “So, look, hydroxychloroquine is – is a very powerful drug for certain things, and it’s a very successful drug. There’s reason to believe that it could be successful here,” he said about a week earlier, on March 28.
Trump was not the only public official touting the drug: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, noted anecdotal evidence of its impact. And there have been anecdotes about its impact. A Democratic state representative from Detroit, for instance, credited the drug – and Trump – for saving her life.
But there have also been significant warnings.
On Friday, the FDA cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine outside of a hospital setting or clinical trials “due to risk of heart rhythm problems.”
“Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19,” the FDA wrote.
Trump raises zinc
Trump has also touted another untested combination to treat the coronavirus, the addition of a zinc regimen. In an April 8 press conference Trump touted the antibiotic azithromycin and “zinc – they say zinc – you should add zinc. Now, it’s all – has to be recommended by doctors, physicians.”
It is not clear from where Trump heard the recommendation. The idea appeared to gain traction after a St. Louis chiropractor posted a video recommending the combination of zinc and tonic water, according to the Associated Press.
Humberto Choi, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told the Associated Press that zinc has been studied to determine if it can protect organs against low oxygen supply in cases of severe lung infection. But, he said, it has not been proven to treat the infection itself. “I don’t think people should be fooled to think they are ingesting something that is causing any benefit to them,” he said.
‘Miraculously goes away’
Trump’s recent assertion about heat and sunlight closed the loop on a claim he made much earlier in the nation’s struggle with the disease. During a campaign rally in New Hampshire on Feb. 10, the president suggested that the virus would likely be killed in the spring – ebbing and flowing much like the seasonal flu.
“You know in theory when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” Trump said based on what he had seen of the virus in China. “Hope that’s true.”
He repeated that theme weeks later during an official event at the White House.
“It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear. And from our shores, we – you know, it could get worse before it gets better,” he said on Feb. 28. “It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
Questioned about those remarks, Trump has angrily dismissed the idea that he misspoke by pointing out that the virus will, almost certainly, eventually subside. But at the time he made those remarks there were fewer than 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States. As of Friday, there were more than 880,000 and the U.S. death toll reached the grim milestone of more than 50,000.