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President Trump, in his White House coronavirus task force briefing Thursday, appeared to suggest that light and disinfectants might have the potential to treat the coronavirus — prompting a number of stories condemning the comments, others seeking to defend the president and a scathing tweet from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
The comments even prompted a statement from Reckitt Benckiser Group, the makers of Lysol, warning against improper use of disinfectant products.
"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)," the company said. "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."
On Friday, the White House hit back at the media’s coverage, with Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying in a statement: “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. Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.”
The president's comments came after administration officials presented findings of a study that suggested increased heat, light and humidity in the summer could decrease the time it takes for the coronavirus to disperse on surfaces and in the air, and potentially slow the spread of the disease during the warmer months. They also said that isopropyl alcohol and bleach were highly effective in tests at killing the virus on surfaces -- with bleach killing it in as few as five minutes and isopropyl alcohol doing so in just 30 seconds.
Trump then launched into the comments that drew the harsh backlash, including one Washington Post headline that read, "Trump asked if disinfectants could be injected to kill coronavirus inside the body. Doctors answered: ‘People will die.’"
Here's what Trump said in his briefing exchanges with his administration experts and reporters.
After Bill Bryan, the head of the science and technology directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, presented the findings of the federal government's study on sunlight, humidity and temperature's effect on the coronavirus -- as well as various disinfectants on the virus when it is on surfaces -- Trump reacted to the comments.
"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 hasn't been checked but you're going to test it," Trump said, looking over to Bryan.
"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 gonna test that, too. Sounds interesting, right?"
He continued: "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, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets on the lungs and it does a tremendous number, so it will be interesting to check that. So that you're going to have to use medical doctors. But it sounds, it sounds interesting to me. So we'll see.
"But the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute, that's, that's pretty powerful."
After Trump's initial comments, in which he did suggest there might be a way to "do something like that by injection inside or, or almost a cleaning" after changing the topic from light to disinfectants but made clear it was not a definitive recommendation and said "medical doctors" should be involved in any tests, a reporter asked Bryan to clarify what the president said.
"The president mentioned the idea of a cleaner. Is the bleach and isopropyl alcohol he mentioned, there's no scenario that could be injected into a person, is there?" the reporter asked.
"No, I'm here to talk about the findings that we had in the study. We don't do that within that lab, at our labs," Bryan responded.
Trump then jumped in with further comments.
"We're talking about almost a latent sterilization of an area. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't work, but it certainly has a big effect if it's on a stationary object," Trump said, not explicitly disavowing the possibility using disinfectants to treat humans, which has been roundly declared dangerous by medical experts and makers of such products.
After multiple questions on other topics, Trump then turned a query from a reporter about why places like Florida, which have higher heat and humidity than other parts of the country, are still seeing significant numbers of coronavirus cases to the topic of potentially treating people.
"I mean, there's been a rumor that, you know, a very nice rumor that you go outside in the sun or you have heat and it does have an effect on other viruses," Trump said referencing previous speculation that factors like heat, light and humidity in the summer could lead to a decrease -- though not an entire stoppage -- in coronavirus cases.
"But now we get it from one of the great laboratories of the world. I have to say, it covers a lot more territory than just this. This is, this is probably an easy thing, relatively speaking, for you," Trump said, looking off to his right toward some of his administration's experts who were at the briefing.
"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 and maybe you can, maybe you can't. Again, I say maybe you can. Maybe you can't. I'm not a doctor. I'm like a person that has a good you know what," Trump said, pointing toward his head then looking over to Dr. Deborah Birx. "You ever, have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light relative to certain viruses? Yes, but relative to this virus?"
"Not as a treatment," Birx responded from off to the side, appearing to choose her words carefully. "I mean certainly fever is a good thing when you 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. I mean, you know," Trump responded.
Trump defends himself
Immediately after the exchange with Birx, which did not include talk about hazardous treatments using disinfectants, a reporter challenged Trump on his speculation about potential coronavirus cures.
"Respectfully sir, you're the president and people tuning into these briefings they want to get information and guidance and want to know what to do. They're not looking for rumors," the reporter said.
Trump responded combatively.
"I'm the president and you are fake news. And you know what I'll say to you? I'll say it very nicely," Trump said. "You ready? It's just a suggestion from a brilliant lab by a very, very smart, perhaps brilliant man. He's talking about sun. He's talking about heat. And you see the numbers. So that's it. That's all I have. I'm just here to present talent. I'm here to present ideas because we want ideas to get rid of this thing. And if he does good and if sunlight is good, that's a great thing as far as I'm concerned."
Trump, in his response, appeared to take Bryan's findings, which did not mention using light as a treatment for humans but rather a factor that could mitigate the coronavirus' spread over the summer, out of context to support his suggestion that light could be used to fight the coronavirus in infected individuals. The exchange between Trump and the reporter, like Trump's exchange with Birx, did not mention hazardous cleaning products as a prospective treatment as Trump did earlier in the briefing.
Light to fight the coronavirus' spread?
Ultraviolet light can harm cells, which is why more sunlight over the summer could presumably help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But it harms human cells as well, meaning the intentional use of man-made ultraviolet light is not considered a serious option for treating the coronavirus.
But a certain type of it could be used, according to one Columbia University researcher, in public buildings to kill the virus before it infects people in the first place. David Brenner, the director of Columbia's Center for Radiological Research said in a story released on the university's website that "far-UVC," a kind of ultraviolet light that is not harmful to humans, could be used to kill "airborne viruses minutes after they've been breathed, coughed or sneezed into the air."
"Far-UVC light has the potential to be a ‘game changer,’” Brenner said, according to the story. “It can be safely used in occupied public spaces, and it kills pathogens in the air before we can breathe them in."
Brenner said that he has used that type of light to eradicate other viruses before and is currently testing it on the novel coronavirus. He noted, however, that the light is not a treatment for sick people as Trump suggested, but instead a way to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.
"Far-UVC takes a fundamentally different tactic in the war against COVID-19,” he said. “Most approaches focus on fighting the virus once it has gotten into the body. Far-UVC is one of the very few approaches that has the potential to prevent the spread of viruses before they enter the body."