Shedding Light on Trump’s ‘Disinfectant’ Comments

As a long-time writer and editor covering scientific and medical topics, I look forward to the high-level discussions of epidemiology, serology, therapeutics and virology by top-flight experts during the daily White House coronavirus task force briefings. As I’ve noted previously, it’s unfortunate there are no medical journalists in the White House Briefing Room. Political journalists are ill-equipped to translate concepts like R0 into lay language for their readers and listeners.

No matter, because many of the questions—particularly during the briefing on April 23—leave no doubt of their lack of desire or intention to shed light on the science. They are there to nit-pick and parse each of President Trump’s utterances and to gin up a clickbait controversy.

At this particular task force briefing, Bill Bryan, undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, discussed research on the sensitivity of coronavirus to ultraviolet (UV) light, temperature and humidity [emphasis mine, throughout]:

[On] nonporous surfaces: door handles, stainless steel. … the virus is dying at a much more rapid pace, just from exposure to higher temperatures and just from exposure to humidity.

If you … inject summer—the sunlight into that. You inject UV rays … you inject the sun. The half-life goes from six hours to two minutes. That’s how much of an impact UV rays has [sic] on the virus. …

[I]ncreasing the temperature and humidity of potentially contaminated indoor spaces appears to reduce the stability of the virus. …

We’re also testing disinfectants readily available. We’ve tested bleach, we’ve tested isopropyl alcohol on the virus, specifically in saliva or in respiratory fluids, and I can tell you that bleach will kill the virus in five minutes.

The president and Bryan then discussed potential research based on these findings:

President Trump: So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous—whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light … 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.

Bryan: We’ll get to the right folks who could.

President Trump: Right. And then I see the disinfectant, here 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. … But the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute, that’s—that’s pretty powerful.

Though the wording of this obviously unscripted comment is admittedly tortured, it should be clear to any fair-minded person that what President Trump is getting at is whether the disinfectant properties of UV light could be used inside the body as effectively as sunlight and disinfectants work on surfaces.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl, always on high alert to find a way to twist the meaning of the president’s comments, asked Bryan this question: “The president mentioned the idea of a cleaner, bleach, and isopropyl alcohol emerging. There’s no scenario where that could be injected into a person, is there?”

You’ll notice Karl disingenuously conflated the disinfectant effect of UV light with surface disinfectants, then made the leap to injecting bleach and other disinfectants into the body, and attributed that dog’s breakfast of a proposition to President Trump.

But the first person to use the word “inject” was Bryan, and he used it three times in the context of adding UV light to synergize the virus-killing properties of heat and humidity. In his question, Karl used the word “inject” to mean a substance administered by needle, but Bryan had used the word to mean “introduce”—as in, “You introduce UV rays and the half-life goes from six hours to two minutes.”

Mirroring Bryan’s terminology, when President Trump used the word “injection,” he was thinking aloud about UV light being introduced internally as a disinfectant to kill coronavirus.

Trump attempted to clarify the deliberately misleading premise of Karl’s question: “It wouldn’t be through injection. We’re talking about . . . a cleaning, sterilization of an area.” In other words, two different methods of sterilization—one involving light, that could possibly work within the body—and hard surface disinfectants, like bleach.

It didn’t matter. The media ran with the false narrative that President Trump suggested people inject themselves with household disinfectants like bleach—and he never once said the word “bleach,” by the way. The manufacturer of Lysol used the fake news as an opportunity to grab the spotlight by putting out a gratuitous statement urging people not to ingest its products, which prolonged the shelf life of la polémique du jour through the weekend.

But guess what? President Trump’s discussion of medical applications of sunlight or “very powerful light” to kill viruses and other microbes shows he understood the research and its implications far better than the snarky, smarty-pants White House Press Corps.

Is it asking too much for scientifically illiterate political journalists to do a little research before launching an attack? Just a bit of Googling shows that there are various methods to bring light “inside the body,” as President Trump put it:

  • Decades of research suggests that intravenous laser blood irradiation (ILBI) with visible red light at a wavelength of 630–640 nanometers can improve blood flow to the lower extremities, and boost oxygenation of the blood to treat tissue hypoxia. These findings are particularly relevant in coronavirus treatment.
  • Doctors have reported sudden strokes and purplish discolorations on the feet and toes of young adults (“COVID toes”), both of which could be a result of blood clots caused by inflammation triggered by an overreaction of the immune system. New Yorkers, in particular, were shocked to learn that Broadway actor Nick Cordero’s right leg was amputated after coronavirus-related hypercoagulation.
  • Silent hypoxia”—low levels of oxygen in the blood—has also been reported in COVID patients, and can lead to heart and kidney damage, as well as to sepsis-induced multiple organ failure.
  • Transcutaneous laser blood irradiation (irradiation of blood circulating in the superficial capillaries of the skin by exposure to UV light) is a time-tested treatment for sepsis and pneumonia, which are among the complications of COVID.
  • There is also evidence suggesting that transcutaneous laser blood irradiation with visible and infrared (IR) light at a wavelength of 480-3,400 nanometers can suppress production of cytokines that cause inflammation and promote the production of cytokines that have an anti-inflammatory effect. The most serious coronavirus symptoms result from inflammation unleashed by an overreaction of the immune system known as a “cytokine storm.”
  • Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles are partnering with pharmaceutical firm Aytu BioScience to develop and commercialize Healight, an antiviral and antibacterial treatment that administers UVA light at wavelengths from 10-400 nanometers into the upper respiratory tract of an intubated ICU patient via a patent-pending catheter embedded with small LED lights. And Cedars-Sinai and Aytu are in discussions with the FDA to get “Breakthrough Device” designation to treat COVID patients with Healite. A promotional video that shows how Healight works has been “mysteriously” removed from a variety of social media platforms after the coronavirus task force briefing, but you can watch it here.

As for the disinfectant properties of UV light outside the body, Columbia University is researching the effects of lamps that emit low doses of a wavelength of UV light known as “far-UVC” to eradicate airborne pathogens from enclosed spaces without damaging the skin or eyes. Such lamps could reduce the person-to-person spread of coronavirus in an ICU full of COVID patients, an arena packed with sports fans, bars and restaurants, and retail establishments. If this safe, low-cost technology pans out, our post-pandemic “new normal” may not be much different than our “old normal” of going where we want, when we want, and without wearing a mask.

Because of this latest manufactured controversy—repeated as often on Fox News as on CNN—President Trump weighed the possibility of ending or curtailing the coronavirus task force briefings. Thankfully, he appears to have thought the better of it. In the midst of an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, we are fortunate enough to have a president who makes himself available to the media to an unusual degree—for instance, taking questions for up to an hour at each coronavirus task force briefing.

President Trump is also uniquely transparent and allows the public to see him think through issues and challenges on Twitter and in the questions he asks public health experts, scientists, business leaders, and others who join him in roundtable discussions at the White House and at the coronavirus task force briefings.

We all get to become the proverbial “fly on the wall,” privy to at least some of what goes on behind closed doors, and what the president thinks of what goes on behind closed doors.

Journalism is supposed to be the first rough draft of history. Had Jonathan Karl, Jim Acosta, and the rest of the cabal of “gotcha” members of the White House Press Corps brought an end to this administration’s unparalleled degree of access and openness, historians decades hence would have cursed their names.

About Ruth Papazian

Ruth Papazian is a Bronx-based health and medical writer, and a political junkie.

Photo: Flavia Morlachetti/Getty Images

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