On the Bleach

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen as William N. Bryan (left), science and technology advisor to the DHS Secretary, delivers remarks and answers questions from members of the press during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 23, 2020. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)
There’s no shortage of quackery out there, dangerous or not.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ong periods of social isolation can lead to insanity. When I turned to Twitter one day last week and found that the trending items under “politics” included #Lysol, #DisinfectantInjection and the surely superfluous #DontDrinkBleach, I began to think that hallucinations were setting in. A link led me to this headline:

“Lysol and Dettol manufacturer tells customers not to inject disinfectants as possible treatment for COVID-19.”

What?

Then I saw this:

#DisinfectantDonnie

Ah.

“Reckitt Benckiser, the British company that makes Lysol and Dettol, issued a press release on Friday urging its customers not to consume or inject its cleaning products after President Donald Trump suggested the possibility of injecting disinfectants as a treatment for COVID-19.”

CNN.

Oh.

So what actually happened?

At Thursday’s White House press briefing, Bill Bryan, who heads the Science and Technology Directorate at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was discussing how the department had intensified its research efforts “to identify and deliver information that informs our response to COVID-19.” These efforts include the use of ultraviolet light and, if not, uh, internally, disinfectant:

Our most striking observation to date is the powerful effect that solar light appears to have on killing the virus — both surfaces and in the air.

And then Bryan went on to explain in some detail what he meant.

But if sunshine is the best disinfectant, more conventional disinfectant has a role to play, too:

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; isopropyl alcohol will kill the virus in 30 seconds, and that’s with no manipulation, no rubbing — just spraying it on and letting it go. You rub it, and it goes away even faster.

So far, so good, but then it was the president’s turn to talk:

I asked Bill a 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 that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. 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 going to test that too. It sounds interesting.

Bryan replied cautiously, “We’ll get to the right folks who could.”

The president:

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. 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. So, that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with. 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.

The reaction of Deborah Birx, who serves as the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator and was there listening to the president has since gone — to use an unfortunate word — viral. It deserves to do so, but it’s worth reading Bryan’s response when queried about that whole disinfectant thing.

A journalist poses the question running through many minds:

But I — just, can I ask about — the president mentioned the idea of cleaners, like bleach and isopropyl alcohol you mentioned. There’s no scenario that that could be injected into a person, is there? I mean …

Bryan:

No, I’m here to talk about the findings that we had in the study. We won’t do that within that lab and our lab. So —

Trump intervenes. What he says is (by his standards) somewhat more restrained, but he still seems to toy with the notion that rinsing an internal organ or two in bleach might be a good idea (my emphasis added):

It wouldn’t be through injection. We’re talking about through almost a cleaning, 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.

This was still alarming, even with the qualification, but at least the specter of the syringe had been banished. But, as so often, Trump did himself no favors, this time with his later claim that he was being sarcastic in the face of “a group of extraordinarily hostile people. Namely the fake news media.”

The long-suffering Dr. Birx had (to me) a more convincing explanation when she said later:

When [Trump] 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 before the press conference, and he was still digesting that information.

The way in which Trump “digested” some of that information may suggest that either his grasp of some very basic science or his way of expressing himself may not be all that it could be (or both). These explanations should not come as a shock, nor should the fact that someone who has made a career out of highly leveraged real estate takes refuge in wild claims when everything around him appears to be falling apart. Needless to say (and quite rightly so), this farce has launched a thousand memes — many of them excellent — and quite a bit of criticism, some of it richly deserved, some of it an overreaction. With November approaching, Trump’s opponents scent Lysol in the water.

As Andy McCarthy wrote over on the Corner (in a post that is worth reading in full):

It is foolish for the president to speak publicly this way. Why can’t the media just report that? Their credibility is in tatters because they can’t leave foolish alone — it’s Trump, so foolish has to be distorted into monstrous.

But November is on the way, and with the administration already highly vulnerable to criticism of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the image of a president talking nonsense about bleach is too arresting to let drop.

Nevertheless, to blame Trump for the possibility that someone might have been dimwitted enough to take a swig of bleach as a result of his remarks is to argue that a president should dumb down his public comments to a level at which words of two syllables might find it difficult to make an appearance.

And yet, Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports that:

By Saturday morning, social media was abuzz with articles about people calling poison control centers, each crafted to illustrate how Americans had apparently taken Trump’s ramblings to heart and consumed household disinfectants like Lysol and bleach.

The problem? Articles shared as illustrations of this actually said no such thing.

One article making the rounds, from the New York Daily News, is headlined “A spike in New Yorkers ingesting household cleaners following Trump’s controversial coronavirus comments.” But the article makes no mention of anyone deliberately consuming household cleaners. It simply states that 30 people called the city’s poison control hotline “over fears that they had ingested bleach or other household cleaners.”

Fearing that you ingested something doesn’t jibe with having intentionally consumed that substance.

Brown noted there had been a spike in calls to poison control centers in many states, but that they had “started in March, as people began using more household disinfectants to try and stave off the new coronavirus. . . .”

Toward the end of a second article, published Tuesday, in which Brown debunked yet more claims that Trump’s comments had set off a surge in bleach-bingeing, she laments how the U.S. was “starting to reach moral-panic proportions about a supposed trend for which there’s very little evidence.” It was “frustrating to see huge swaths of professional news media spreading it (sometimes with more satisfaction than dismay).”

Never let a moral panic go to waste.

And, as often, when myths make their way into the discourse, so do conspiracy theories.

Ed Pilkington in Friday’s Guardian:

The leader of the most prominent group in the US peddling potentially lethal industrial bleach as a “miracle cure” for coronavirus wrote to Donald Trump at the White House this week.

In his letter, Mark Grenon told Trump that chlorine dioxide — a powerful bleach used in industrial processes such as textile manufacturing that can have fatal side-effects when drunk — is “a wonderful detox that can kill 99% of the pathogens in the body.” He added that it “can rid the body of Covid-19.”

Pilkington makes no connection between what Trump said and what the president had heard (and misunderstood) from Bryan and his colleagues nor, for that matter, does he make any allusion to Bryan’s comments. Instead he focuses on Grenon’s letter, which Trump may or may not have seen, and notes Grenon’s claim that 30 of his supporters (presumably members of what has, not unreasonably, been described as a “bleach cult”) had also recently written to Trump defending the use of MMS (Miracle Mineral Solution), a “sacramental cleansing water” now peddled as a way of overcoming COVID-19. Again, Trump may or may not have seen those letters.

Miracles never cease to impress: As Pilkington noted in the Guardian last year, MMS, a bleach that, when washed down with water, was supposed to be able to “eliminate 95% of the world’s diseases, including malaria, ebola, dengue fever, all types of cancer, diabetes, autism, HIV and multiple sclerosis.” COVID-19, we must assume, wouldn’t stand a chance. Elsewhere it has been reported that some of the QAnon crowd are also rallying behind this toxic and potentially lethal “cure,” a cure that is not only being consumed by gullible adults, but, even more horrifyingly, is also being given to children.

Meanwhile, according to the Guardian, Grenon, who is the bishop of Genesis II, a Florida-based “Church of Health and Healing,” maintains that MMS had actually been sent to the White House. He wrote: “Trump has got the MMS and all the info!!! Things are happening folks! Lord help others to see the Truth!”

So long as there has been illness there have been quack remedies. Their persistence into the era of modern medicine reflects an understandable desperation when confronted with the diseases that still defeat us. But it is also a demonstration both of the lasting appeal of the irrational — and of how it can curdle into paranoia. After over a century in which medicine has achieved the remarkable, its continued failings, to some, can only be the product of dark doings, of knowledge deliberately withheld. To make use of a purportedly hidden cure is simultanously the path to good health, a display of intellectual, cultural and — think goop or a church of healing —spiritual superiority and an act of resistance against the Man.

The intertwining of the personal and the political is not a new phenomenon. Almost inevitably, there is a link between pseudoscience preference and political affiliation. Writing in the 1930s, George Orwell had the impression “that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every . . . ‘Nature Cure’ quack . . . in England.” A belief in the magical benefits of “organic” food, a peculiarity largely of the far right in Orwell’s day, is now — to generalize wildly — more associated with the Left, the liberal, or the “progressive,” and the same can probably be said of junk cures, particularly if they are, however tenuously, associated with the mystic east of the Western imagination.

That said, some of the kookier corners of the Right, especially its conspiracist wing, also have a weakness for quackery, including, infamously, an unhealthy interest in the allegedly health-giving properties of colloidal silver. This is a substance best known for turning Stan Jones, a zanily heterodox “libertarian” politician with strong views about an impending one-world Communist government, blue, but which has also been promoted by another, better-known conspiracist Jones, Alex, as a cure for COVID-19, at least until the Feds intervened.

This was followed by the Justice Department taking action on Friday against various Grenons and the Genesis II church in an effort to stop their sale of MMS. To be sure, Chris Cuomo’s wife, the founder, reports USA Today of the “health and wellness” platform The Purist, may have added Clorox to her bathwater in her battle with the coronavirus, but those most actively involved in advocating the drinking of bleach appear to be on the right. QAnon’s bleach bums are not alone. Prompted by that Guardian column (I’ll explain later), I went over to a web-based TV channel fronted by Alan Keyes, late of the Reagan administration, a three-time Republican candidate for the Senate and the GOP presidential nomination. I watched Keyes watching a MAGA-hat-wearing presenter recount how he was convinced that “chlorine dioxide [MMS] is what God uses to bring down big pharma.” If the snake oil favored by the Left comes with an overlay of Eastern spirituality, that on the right comes with more than a hint of the book of Gantry. However, the reference to big pharma is a reminder that some of the obsessions — such as on the evils and/or dangers of vaccination — that fuel a belief in alternative medicine unite the deluded of both Left and Right, even if they get there by very different routes.

But back to the Guardian:

It is not known whether Keyes has discussed MMS with Trump. But the two men have overlapping interests.

Not only have they both featured in Republican Party and presidential politics, but they were both leading proponents of the birther conspiracy theory that wrongfully suggested Barack Obama was born outside America.

That Trump has a conspiracist side is no secret (it was not reassuring that, as president-elect, he may have asked anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to chair a commission on “vaccination safety and scientific integrity” before abandoning the idea). But while this president can plunge deep into the fever swamps, the evidence — if the Guardian’s report is any guide — that he has picked up on bleachmonger chat seems thin, even as conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories go.

And as for Trump’s “just suppose” about bringing “the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way,” well, although his thinking aloud (which is what it was) was phrased with characteristically upbeat imprecision, and although both tanning beds and plenty of dubious light sanitizer treatments are indeed lying in wait for the unwary and the unwise, the relationship between ultraviolet light and a viral infection has long been suspected, at least since the time of the Spanish flu.

Interestingly, a few days before that notorious press briefing, Aytu Science, a small biotech company, announced that it had licensed Healight, a technology platform from Cedars-Sinai that “employs proprietary methods of administering intermittent ultraviolet (UV) A light via a novel endotracheal medical device” — in other words, internally. Had Trump heard about it? I have no idea. Will it work? Could it work? I have no idea. According to the company, the preclinical data has been encouraging, and when Aytu announced on Monday that it had signed an agreement with Sterling Medical Devices “to finalize the development of Healight, a novel endotracheal catheter, as a potential treatment for coronavirus,” its stock soared.

We’ll have to see how Healight does. But the impatient have infinitely longer shots to try, ranging from intravenous Vitamin C to the cow urine (or, for variety, cow dung) being recommended by an Indian politician, to sipping lemongrass and elderberry tea as a preventative measure, a combo being pushed by Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, a man clearly looking for another field in which not to excel.

As for me, I’m indecisively eyeing the unopened pack of nicotine lozenges I bought after the announcement that French researchers are preparing to test the theory that nicotine can help fight COVID-19 infection, a hypothesis that, if proved, would be delightful on many, many levels.

But bleach, no, not that.

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