Coronavirus Updates: President Signs Bill, Clarifies Disinfectant Suggestion

Apr 24, 2020
Originally published on April 24, 2020 8:03 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In early February, President Trump tweeted that as the weather warms, the coronavirus, quote, "hopefully becomes weaker, then gone." Several days later, February 10, he mentioned that theory to governors assembled at the White House and then that night at a rally in New Hampshire.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And, by the way, the virus - they're working hard. Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. Hope that's true.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, April is here. And last night, that issue took center stage at the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing.

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WILLIAM BRYAN: It would be irresponsible for us to say that we feel that the summer is just going to totally kill the virus and that it's a free-for-all and that people ignore those guidance. That is not the case.

CHANG: That is William Bryan, an official from the Department of Homeland Security who earlier in the briefing had given a somewhat unexpected presentation on the effects of sunlight, heat and humidity on the coronavirus. For the backstory on all of this, I want to bring in now NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Hey, guys.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: Tam, I want to start with - hi. I want to start with Tam. You know, you have been looking into how this presentation made its way into the White House briefing yesterday. Just tell us, what have you learned so far?

KEITH: So this research comes from a specialized Homeland Security laboratory. It's studying how temperature, sunlight, humidity and disinfectants all affect the coronavirus, both on hard surfaces and in the air. It's sort of basic science research. But it's really important to know that this research is still in its early stages. The researchers haven't published their findings, though they have updated the Coronavirus Task Force on what they've found. Now, Bill Bryan, who we heard from earlier, he made the presentation. He's the acting director of the science and technology branch of Homeland Security. He was invited to the briefing to talk about this work. But the problem is, people I've spoken to say this research wasn't ready to be presented to the public. David Lapan is a former spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

DAVID LAPAN: All very useful information for internal audiences, so the Coronavirus Task Force is made aware of what various parts of the government are doing. That is very different from then having the president bring it out into a very public forum and present that information, not only by Bill Bryan, but then the president to then ruminate on that.

KEITH: And the White House declined to comment on why Bryan was invited. But as you noted, the president has been saying he hoped the weather would help this coronavirus go away for months.

CHANG: Right. OK. So turning to you, Rob. The president also seemed to be seizing on this idea that heat and sunlight or at least research into that supports the idea that the virus might become less of a problem during the summer, when it gets hotter and more humid. So let's get the science point of view. What do we know about that? Is there any evidence that he's onto something?

STEIN: Well, Ailsa, you know, some viruses do kind of come and go with the seasons. You know, like the flu. We have the flu season in the winter, usually starting in the fall. And even some viruses in the same family as the one that causes COVID-19 sort of have a seasonal pattern. That's possible with this one. But because this virus is brand new - it's so new - most scientists say that's far from clear that it'll happen. In fact, the virus is hitting hard in other parts of the world right now where it's hot and humid. So it's - that makes it - the case seem less likely.

CHANG: Right.

STEIN: And this is a big concern because the federal government seems to be kind of banking on getting a break from the virus this summer. You know, I talked to CDC Director Robert Redfield earlier this week. And he said, you know, kind of suggested that states kind of have the summer to get ready for the virus to come back in the fall. But, you know, it's far from clear that we'll have that respite. We could have new outbreaks anytime over the summer.

CHANG: I saw that the president also speculated on whether you could hit the body with ultraviolet light - inside and out - as a treatment. What was he saying there?

STEIN: Well, that's a very good question. You know, certain kinds of ultraviolet light can be used to do things like, you know, sterilize medical equipment. But no one that I talked to is seriously considering trying to use it inside the body as a treatment. Here's how Dr. Michael Mina at Harvard reacted to that idea when he was asked about it today during a Zoom talk.

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MICHAEL MINA: I don't know if people can see me, but I'm laughing. We're not going to be using UV light to kill a virus inside of the body. This isn't - I don't what he's referring to.

CHANG: I mean, I wish we could be laughing, but we can't. The president then talked about using disinfectant and suggested that researchers look into that idea. Let's listen to a bit of this.

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TRUMP: And then I see the disinfectant, 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'll be interesting to check that, so that you're going to have to use medical doctors. But it sounds interesting to me.

CHANG: Rob Stein, what's been the reaction to that from the scientific community?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, doctors I've been talking to about that today, they've been really shocked and really worried, you know, especially the suggestion that disinfectants might be used as a treatment. Here's Dr. Howard Markel. He's a prominent medical historian at the University of Michigan. He's also a pediatrician.

HOWARD MARKEL: I was absolutely horrified. And my prescription is that the president stop playing doctor and start playing president. The giving out of unwanted, unwarranted, unfounded and dangerous medical advice is not what's needed during a pandemic.

STEIN: You know, there's already been an increase in people, you know, including kids getting poisoned by household cleaners because everyone's using them so much these days. And so the worry is people could actually try literally swallowing bleach to try to treat themselves.

CHANG: Yeah. A spokesperson for the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, tweeted today that the state's emergency management agency has received hundreds of calls from people literally asking about treating themselves with disinfectants.

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah. So that's a thing people are really worried about. You know, and the company that makes Lysol, you know, went so far as to issue a statement today warning people about the dangers of ingesting its products.

CHANG: Unbelievable.

STEIN: You know, and this is - there's a sort of pattern here. You'd probably remember there's been a lot of concern about how much the president's been touting two drugs - hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine - as possible treatments. And today, the Food and Drug Administration, you know, issued a statement about those drugs saying you've got to be careful. They can cause serious complications.

CHANG: Well, Tam, how are the president and the White House dealing with all of this uproar?

KEITH: Yes. So the White House - the new spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, put out a statement saying that, you know, the president had said and always says consult with medical doctors regarding any coronavirus treatment. And then they sort of blamed the media for giving bad headlines and blowing this out of proportion. The president himself was asked about it. And he was a bit defensive, but said he was being sarcastic, and again blamed the media.

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TRUMP: When I was asking a sarcastic - and a very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside. But it does kill it, and it would kill it on the hands. And that would make things much better. That was done in the form of a sarcastic question to the reporters.

KEITH: The thing to point out here, though, is that this was not during the question-and-answer portion of the briefing when he said this. He was actually talking to Bill Bryan, the Homeland Security official. And also worth noting, President Trump has claimed that he was being sarcastic before after previous controversial or problematic statements.

CHANG: All right. That was NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and health correspondent Rob Stein.

Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.