Dr. Deborah Birx tried hard not to betray her feelings, looking down and away from the president, when Donald Trump suggested, during a coronavirus briefing on Thursday, that doctors should “check” to see if injecting patients suffering from Covid-19 with bleach or isopropyl alcohol, or exposing them to ultraviolet light, might cure them.
The agony of Doctor Birx, a former Army colonel who serves as the White House coronavirus task force coordinator and often seems at pains not to correct the commander-in-chief, was captured on camera as she sat offstage listening to the president.
The president’s spitballing came in response to a presentation by Bill Bryan, a science and technology advisor to the secretary of Homeland Security, who had just described research carried out at the U.S. Army’s biosecurity laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md. showing that the virus can be neutralized on nonporous surfaces by disinfectants or prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Apparently recounting a conversation with Bryan just prior to the briefing, Trump said that he had asked the science advisor if those techniques work so well to clear the virus from nonporous surfaces, like doorhandles or metal swing sets, why not try them on humans?
“So I asked Bill a question,” Trump told reporters as Bryan took a seat beside Birx. “‘Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous– whether it’s ultra-violet or just very powerful light?'” Trump said. “And, I think you said,” the president continued, turning to Bryan, “that hasn’t been checked, and you’re going to test it.”
“And then I said,” the president went on, “‘Supposing you brought the light inside the body, either through the skin, or some other way?’ And I think you said you’re going to test that too. Sounds interesting.”
“We’ll get it to the right folks who could,” Bryan replied.
“Right,” Trump said. “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. Is there a way where we can do something like that, by injection?” Trump asked. It was at this point that Birx, who had been looking up at the president from her seat offstage, dropped her gaze.
“Almost a cleaning,” Trump went on, describing his proposed therapy for Covid-19 patients. “So it would be interesting to check that,” Trump said to Bryan. “So that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with,” he added. “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 pretty powerful.”
Trump’s outlandish display of quackery sent news channels that broadcast his remarks live into a debunking frenzy, as they scrambled to warn viewers not to heed the president’s advice by self-medicating, as an Arizona couple did last month when he promoted the antimalarial drug chloroquine, and they ingested a version of it used to kill parasites on tropical fish.
As the debate over whether to laugh or cry about the president’s bizarre behavior intensified, his strange remarks on Thursday also inspired a remarkable parody by the comedian Sarah Cooper, who lip-synced to the actual audio of the president’s comments.
By Friday afternoon, the intensity of the global ridicule had become too intense for even Trump to ignore. He responded by pretending, when Weijia Jiang of CBS News asked him to clarify his “provocative” proposal for injections of disinfectants, that the whole thing had just been an elaborate in-joke — on the media and, it seems, the entire rest of the human race.
“I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” Trump lied, absurdly. When Trump insisted that his suggestion had been made “in the form of a very sarcastic question to the reporters,” one of them noted that he had, in fact, been “asking your medical experts to look into it — were you being sarcastic with them?”
Reporter: Could you clarify your comments on injections of disinfectants?— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) April 24, 2020
Trump: I was asking the question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen...
Reporter: But you were asking your medical experts to look into it pic.twitter.com/T0hzizjgpN
It seems not to have occurred to Trump, as he was formulating this excuse, that making false statements about medical science from the White House in the midst of a briefing on a global pandemic that has now killed 50,000 Americans might not put him in a positive light.
He then lied again about what had transpired on live television and internet streams just hours earlier, by claiming that he had only asked that experts “look into whether or not sun and disinfectant on the hands” was effective. That was unclearly untrue, since those points have already been studied. Still the president plowed on with his lie. “Bill is going back to check that in the laboratory,” he said.
When Jeff Mason of Reuters asked Trump to clarify that he was not encouraging Americans to inject bleach, the president scoffed at the suggestion. “No, of course not,” the president said. “Interior-wise, it was said sarcastically.”
Trump: "Interior-wise, it was said sarcastically. It was put in the form of a question to a group of extraordinarily hostile people namely the fake news media... You know the way it was asked, I was looking at you."— The Hill (@thehill) April 24, 2020
Reporter: "I wasn't there yesterday."
Trump: "I know. I know." pic.twitter.com/4npSamEoyN
“You know the way it was asked, I was looking at you,” Trump added, overplaying his hand. “Sir, I wasn’t there yesterday,” Mason replied.
“You were looking at Dr. Birx,” Jiang noted. “I was looking at Bill, I was looking at the doctor, I was looking at some of the reporters. I don’t know if you were there? Were you there? I don’t think you were there.”
“I was there and I watched you ask her,” Jiang replied, as the dialogue descended into farce. “You were there,” Trump said. “If you were there, I never forget.”
When Trump showed up for the daily briefing later on Friday, he started so abruptly that none of the news channels caught the beginning of his prepared remarks. Less than 22 minutes later, he retreated from the room without taking a single question for the first time. “Mr. President, is now the time for sarcasm?” one reporter asked as he fled.
In the second half of Thursday’s briefing, Bryan had been forced to clarify to reporters that his lab had never suggested injecting cleaning products into humans and had looked at the effect of sunlight on the virus on nonporous surfaces, not people — not even what Trump described as the “sort of semi-nonporous surface” of a person’s hand.
When Trump was then asked if it was responsible for him to keep suggesting that people would be protected from infection by the coronavirus in warm weather, he raised his new theory again. “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, but now we get it from one of the great laboratories of the world,” the president said. Turning to Bryan, he added: “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.”
Trump said on Thursday he wants doctors "to see if there’s any way that you can apply light and heat to cure" Covid-19. Then he put Dr. Deborah Birx on the spot, asking if she had heard of any such treatments. She tried hard to not make him seem stupid. pic.twitter.com/RaoKqM2EiO— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) April 24, 2020
“I say, maybe you can, maybe you can’t. I’m not a doctor,” Trump said, turning back to the reporters. “But I’m, like, a person that has a good, you know what,” he added, pointing to his head. Then, finally, there was nowhere left for the only doctor in the room to hide.
“Deborah, have you ever heard of that?” the president asked Birx. “The heat and the light, relative to– certain viruses, yes, but relative to this virus?”
“Not as a treatment,” Birx said. “I mean, certainly fever is a good thing,” she added quickly, searching for some way to avoid reinforcing the idea that the president’s musings were entirely stupid. “When you have a fever, it helps your body respond. But not as, I’ve not seen heat or light…” she added, trailing off. “I think it’s a great thing to look at,” Trump said, embracing his role as quack-in-chief.
Pressed by Philip Rucker of The Washington Post on whether he should really be sharing rumors with anxious citizens tuning into the briefing to get updates on the public health emergency, Trump suddenly pretended that his own ideas had somehow come from Bryan. “It’s just a suggestion, from a brilliant lab, by a very, very smart, perhaps brilliant man,” the president said, gesturing at Bryan. “He’s talking about sun, he’s talking about heat,” Trump said. “I’m just here to present ideas, because we want ideas to get rid of this thing.”
The president’s bizarre musings were quickly rejected by doctors who advised viewers of the briefing to not, under any circumstances, ingest or inject themselves with bleach or isopropyl alcohol to ward off the coronavirus.
“The idea of introducing something that is a known toxin into the body — isopropyl alcohol, disinfectants, I mean those are things we always worry that kids swallow accidentally, or people who are intentionally trying to hurt themselves… UV light inside the body?” Dr. Esther Choo, an emergency room physician in Portland, Oregon, told MSNBC. “It’s just this stream of consciousness based on… probably on this underlying concept that many viruses have a seasonal component to them,” she added. “But to jump from there to the idea that sunlight is the cure, I’m actually worried about what people will do with UV lights and creating burns on their mucosal surfaces.”
Other experts have pointed out that the kind of ultraviolet rays used in disinfection are not safe for use on people’s skin, while the sort of UV light used in consumer products, like the tanning beds the president is fond of, do not kill viruses.
Trump’s speculation about the possible disinfecting of human bodies came three days after the Centers for Disease Control reported that calls to poison centers related to exposure or ingestion of cleaning and disinfectant products were already up 20 percent in March.
The president’s brainstorm was also debunked by medical experts on CNN and described as “poppycock” by the network’s Chris Cuomo, who has recently recovered from Covid-19. One day earlier, Cuomo’s wife, the wellness blogger Cristina Cuomo, revealed that she has been fighting the disease herself by adding half a cup of Clorox to her bath water, “to combat the radiation and metals in my system and oxygenate it.”
Early on Friday, the British company that makes Lysol issued a statement saying they have been fielding questions as to “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,” the company said, “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).”
On Fox News on Friday afternoon, Dr. Birx cast the president’s remarks as part of his not-at-all-alarming process of “digesting” information by thinking out loud.
Dr. Birx defends the President: When he gets new information, he likes to talk that through out loud and really have that dialogue and so that’s what dialogue he was having. I think he just saw the information at the time immediately.. and he was still digesting that information pic.twitter.com/3XrNvs8UjX— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) April 24, 2020
Last Updated: Friday, April 24, 6:26 p.m. EDT
This article was updated to report that the president of the United States now claims that he was just kidding on Thursday when he asked medical and scientific experts to check out his idea that injecting disinfectant products into the human body might cure Covid-19, and that he took no questions at all at Friday’s briefing.