This morning Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, slammed news outlets for reporting that President Donald Trump had suggested injecting household disinfectants might prove to be an effective cure for COVID-19. "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. "Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines."
Is that what they did? The context of Trump's remarks was a presentation by William Bryan, a senior Department of Homeland Security official who oversees science and technology issues. Bryan summarized the results of experiments that found exposure to sunlight dramatically reduced the half-life of coronavirus particles on nonporous surfaces such as door handles and stainless steel. He also noted that applying bleach "will kill the virus in five minutes," while isopropyl alcohol "will kill the virus in 30 seconds." Here is Trump's response to that information, according to the official White House transcript of the press briefing:
I asked Bill a question that probably some of you are thinking of, if you're totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting. So, 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. 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. It sounds interesting…
And then I see the disinfectant, where it 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 in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that. So, that, you're going to have to use medical doctors with. But it sounds—it sounds interesting to me.
Trump's comments apparently were alarming enough to prompt an advisory from Reckitt Benckiser, the British manufacturer of Lysol and Dettol cleaning products. I say "apparently" because the advisory does not mention Trump specifically, but it was first posted around noon London time, about 12 hours after the press briefing, which concluded close to midnight for the folks at Reckitt Benckiser. Here is what they said:
Due to recent speculation and social media activity, RB (the makers of Lysol and Dettol) has been asked whether internal administration of disinfectants may be appropriate for investigation or use as a treatment for coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).
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, ingestion or any other route). As with all products, our disinfectant and hygiene products should only be used as intended and in line with usage guidelines. Please read the label and safety information.
Did the president recommend that Americans inject themselves with bleach as a COVID-19 cure or prophylactic? Strictly speaking, no. As McEnany emphasized, he said "you're going to have to use medical doctors" for that sort of thing. But he did idly speculate that, since disinfectants kill the COVID-19 virus on surfaces, it was worth investigating whether they might work as a treatment, and he specifically mentioned "injection," which was not only scientifically naive but reckless given the prevalence of quack remedies and wacky ideas about how to ward off the disease.
Unlike Trump's hopeful remarks about the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, which people unfairly blamed for the death of a man who swallowed the fish tank cleaner chloroquine phosphate, his out-loud wondering about the possible benefits of injecting disinfectant had no scientific basis and might encourage potentially deadly experimentation. "This notion of injecting or ingesting any type of cleansing product into the body is irresponsible, and it's dangerous," pulmonologist Vin Gupta told NBC News. "It's a common method that people utilize when they want to kill themselves."
Trump's suggestion about using "ultraviolet or just very powerful light" to eliminate the virus inside infected patients, while less likely to kill anyone, was equally fanciful (although it did work on the flying jellyfish that attacked Mr. Spock, albeit with a major side effect). "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," he told a reporter. Turning to Deborah Birx, the physician who runs the White House's coronavirus task force, he asked, "Deborah, have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light…relative to this virus?" Her answer was firm but diplomatic: "Not as a treatment."
Update: Today Trump claimed he was just kidding about injecting disinfectants, an explanation that was notably absent from McEnany's statement. "I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen," he said during a bill signing. You be the judge: