President Trump’s raising of unproven ideas for fighting COVID-19 — musing about injecting disinfectants into people and touting an antimalaria drug to combat the virus — triggered a widespread outcry from doctors, lawmakers, and the makers of cleaning products on Friday.
They issued dire warnings about the dangers of ingesting disinfectants, responding to remarks by Trump the night before about the possible medical benefits of sunlight, ultraviolet light, and household disinfectants on the coronavirus.
The warnings were uniform: The cleaning products are extremely dangerous to ingest — potentially deadly — and no one should do so.
Separately, the US Food and Drug Administration on Friday warned doctors against prescribing a malaria drug repeatedly suggested by Trump for treating the new coronavirus. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side effects among coronavirus patients taking hydroxychloroquine or the related drug chloroquine.
The responses to Trump’s statements came as the reported US death toll from the coronavirus topped 50,000. Massachusetts on Friday reported 196 additional deaths, bringing the total of pandemic deaths in the state to 2,556.
Reckitt Benckiser, the British company that makes Lysol and Dettol, said Friday that it was warning customers against using disinfectants as treatment after “recent speculation and social media activity.”
“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),” it said in a statement.
The Clorox Co. said Friday that disinfecting surfaces with bleach was one way to help slow the spread of COVID-19, citing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it added, “Bleach and other disinfectants are not suitable for consumption or injection under any circumstances.”
Accidents with household cleaning products appear to have sharply increased in recent weeks, according to doctors who monitor activity at poison call centers. On Monday, the CDC reported an alarming trend of growing calls to poison control centers, and a significant increase in accidental exposures to household cleaners and disinfectants.
Ingesting bleach or disinfectant chemicals is very dangerous, said Dr. Diane P. Calello, medical director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System. “When people injected bleach or highly concentrated rubbing alcohol it causes massive organ damage and the blood cells in the body to basically burst,” she said.
But although companies and doctors have warned about such chemicals for years, officials around the country on Friday were fielding calls and questions about disinfectants and COVID-19. By the afternoon, Maryland’s hot line had received more than 100 calls on the subject, Mike Ricci, the spokesman for Governor Larry Hogan, said on Twitter.
The calls prompted a response from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency: “Under no circumstances should any disinfectant product be administered into the body through injection, ingestion or any other route.”
Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary, was even more emphatic, saying that, as a pediatrician, she had seen children with “very, very severe burns of their esophagus, requiring intensive care and operations,” after ingesting cleaning materials.
“I can tell you from my clinical experience that it is an extremely dangerous thing to do,” she said at a news conference.
Trump speculated about the possible medical application of disinfectants at the White House briefing Thursday. William N. Bryan, the head of science at the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters that the government had tested how sunlight and disinfectants — including bleach and alcohol — can kill the coronavirus on surfaces.
Trump then spoke about disinfectants.
“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?” Trump asked. “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.”
On Friday morning, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said that Trump’s comments were taken out of context by the media.
Then, on Friday afternoon, Trump tried to suggest that he had been kidding with his musings the day before. “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” he told journalists in the Oval Office as he signed the latest coronavirus relief bill into law.
Calello, one of the authors of the report, said Friday that there was no evidence to suggest that any of these disinfectant chemicals, tested on nonporous surfaces like countertops, can work inside the body to kill the new coronavirus or any other virus.
The chemicals do cause severe damage inside the human body, she said.
“There are reports, tragically, of people who either in a misinformed attempt to clean their blood, or an attempt to harm themselves, inject themselves with chemicals,” said Calello, who works regular shifts at the New Jersey poison hot line.
There are no products, vaccines, or drugs approved to treat or cure the coronavirus.
Bryan, whose briefing on Thursday set off the episode, is serving in an acting capacity as the head of the department’s science and technology directorate. He served 17 years in the Army, followed by years-long stints as a civil servant at the Defense and Energy departments. The latter role led to a whistle-blower complaint accusing him, in part, of manipulating government policy to further his personal financial interests, and then lying to Congress about those interests.
The US Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints, asked the Energy Department last year to investigate the accusations against Bryan. In January, the Senate returned his nomination to the White House.
Bryan was invited by the vice president’s office to the coronavirus task force meetings Wednesday and Thursday to discuss a study that his department had done relating to heat and the conditions in which the coronavirus can thrive or be dampened. On Thursday, Bryan presented a graphic to the room, according to four people briefed on the events, and he later was permitted to brief the news media.
As he listened to Bryan, Trump became increasingly excited, and also felt the need to demonstrate his own understanding of science, according to three of the advisers. So Trump went ahead with his theories about the chemicals.
At the briefing Thursday, Trump also asked officials about testing the effects of light on the virus. “Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light,” Trump said. “And I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but we’re going to test it?” he added, turning to Bryan, the Department of Homeland Security official. “And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, either through the skin or some other way.”
Ultraviolet lamps can harm humans if used improperly, experts warn.
When Trump asked Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, whether she had heard of the success of sunlight as an effective tool against viruses, and more specifically the coronavirus, she replied, “Not as a treatment.”
At other White House briefings, Trump has issued medical advice for fighting the virus that goes well beyond scientific evidence, including about warmer temperatures and the antimalaria drug hydroxychloroquine.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi ridiculed Trump’s latest comment as she criticized his priorities for coronavirus relief.
“The president is asking people to inject Lysol into their lungs,” she said, calling it an indication that “Republicans reject science.”
And Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, added his own criticism.
“I can’t believe I have to say this,” Biden posted on Twitter Friday afternoon, “but please don’t drink bleach.”
Material from the Associated Press and The Washington Post was used in this report.