Donald Trump has insisted that his suggestion people with coronavirus could be treated with injections of disinfectant was “sarcastic” after a heated and widespread backlash.
The US president also denied urging medical experts to look into the idea – despite footage making clear he had done just that – and said the remarks were meant for reporters.
“I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” Mr Trump told a journalist who asked him to clarify, repeatedly saying he had been sarcastic.
The backtracking came after medical experts, political opponents, figures in the Trump administration and even a detergent company had warned of the dangers of such action.
The makers of cleaning fluids Lysol and Dettol issued a statement saying “under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body”.
A spokesman for the US Environmental Protection Agency said disinfectants should be used for surfaces only, adding: “Never apply the product to yourself or others. Do not ingest disinfectant products.”
Mr Trump had triggered the row with loose comments during Thursday evening’s White House press briefing where he publicly mused on possible treatments for Covid-19.
Addressing Bill Bryan, who leads the science and technology directorate at the Homeland Security Department, Mr Trump mentioned the idea that UV rays could harm the virus.
The president discussed hitting the body with a “tremendous” amount of “ultraviolet or just very powerful light”. He suggested Mr Bryan was “going to test it”, and the official responded “we’ll get to the right folks who could.”
Mr Trump went on: “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.
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“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.”
The comments were made while looking at Mr Bryan. The idea floated – that there could be some medical benefit from injecting disinfectant – was quickly condemned by experts.
John Balmes, a pulmonologist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, told Bloomberg News: “Inhaling chlorine bleach would be absolutely the worst thing for the lungs.”
The emergency management team in Washington state tweeted “please don’t eat tide pods or inject yourself with any kind of disinfectant”, telling people with coronavirus: “Just don’t make a bad situation worse.”
With negative headlines mounting and the backlash playing out on US cable news, Mr Trump played down his comments when he was challenged about them on Friday afternoon.
“I was asking a sarcastic and a very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside,” he said.
“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.”
Pushed on why he urged his medical experts to look into it, Mr Trump said “no, no, no, no”, insisting he had just asked them to look into using sunlight and disinfectant on the hands.
Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, noted in a statement that Mr Trump mentioned people consulting doctors while discussing the idea – used as proof he was not urging anything dangerous.
She also blamed reporters for the row, saying: “Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.”
The Guardian has reported that the leader of a group pushing bleach as a “miracle cure” for coronavirus had written to Mr Trump this week, calling it a “wonderful detox”.
The row reflects Mr Trump’s tendency to float the possible benefits of unproven treatments for Covid-19. Critics said the comments could encourage people to try dangerous drugs.
On Friday, that was underscored by a safety notice issued by the US Food and Drug Administration about hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine.
Mr Trump has urged people to ask their doctors for the anti-malarial drugs, talking up hopes they could treat Covid-19 and often asking “what do you have to lose?”
The FDA statement warned of “serious heart rhythm problems” in coronavirus patients who used the drug and said it should only be used in hospital or clinical trials.