As Covid-19 ‘Treatment’ Loses Its Luster, Trump Floats Nonsense

As U.S. deaths from the coronavirus pandemic reached 46,000 and total unemployment claims topped 26 million, President Donald J. Trump urged researchers to study whether applying ultraviolet light or chemical disinfectants inside the body could kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

“I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute,” the President said during a White House briefing on Thursday, following a presentation of data confirming that bleach and isopropyl alcohol neutralize the virus when it’s present on surfaces. “Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection or inside or almost a cleaning?” he asked. “It’d be interesting to check that.”

Bleach and isopropyl alcohol are, of course, highly toxic to humans, and experts have since extolled that people ignore Trump and not attempt to inject them inside the body. But the surreal moment reflected the peculiar mixture of uncertainty, hopefulness, and wild inaccuracy that has come to characterize the Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Those same dynamics have been on display in the hydroxychloroquine saga, which entered another chapter this week as new evidence suggested that the drug may not be helping Covid-19 patients — and in fact, could be harming some.

In February, a French doctor, Didier Raoult, began arguing that the drug, used to treat malaria as well as autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, might be effective against SARS-CoV-2. The claim gained traction, and, in March, Raoult released a small study supporting his claim. The study was neither double-blind nor randomized, but Raoult’s claims were amplified by entrepreneur Elon Musk, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, and Trump’s lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Trump touted a combination of hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin as a potential world-historical “game changer,” despite the limited evidence.

Interest in the drug spiked. People snapped up prescriptions. Lupus patients and others who relied on hydroxychloroquine for treatment struggled to refill their prescriptions as supplies dwindled at many pharmacies. A couple in Arizona tried to self-medicate with a version of the drug and landed in the hospital. One of them died.

While more trials are still pending, new evidence this week suggests that the drug may not work against Covid-19. An analysis of data from patients treated with the drug in veterans hospitals, published on Tuesday as a non-peer-reviewed preprint, suggests that hydroxychloroquine did not improve outcomes — and that it could actually be harmful.

Concerns about the treatment may not have been welcome in the White House: One official from the Department of Health and Human Services said that he was sacked for expressing doubts about hydroxychloroquine. But the National Institutes of Health now officially recommends that, because of “the potential for toxicities,” doctors avoid giving patients the combination.

During a pandemic, people in desperate circumstances will sometimes seek experimental treatments, seeing little to lose. But hopeful speculation, unleavened with strong evidence, can be its own dangerous cocktail. “These findings,” the VA study team wrote, “highlight the importance of awaiting the results of ongoing prospective, randomized, controlled studies before widespread adoption of these drugs.”

In this week’s Abstracts, as in previous weeks, we continue to offer a roundup of coronavirus themes that defined this week’s news, and that are likely to stay relevant in the days ahead.

• Georgia begins to lift many Covid-19 restrictions, over objections from public health experts.

On Monday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that “due to favorable data and more testing,” he would be reopening certain businesses at the end of the week, including bowling alleys, barbers, gyms, massage parlors, and nail salons. Kemp also announced that dine-in restaurants and movie theaters will be allowed to open on Monday, April 27th. However, businesses will be required to function under “minimum basic operations,” in which they must keep workstations 6 feet apart from one another and screen employees for fevers. More than one of Georgia’s city mayors expressed concern. These “are exactly the kind of places that we need to have maintain closure for the moment” said Kelly Girtz, the mayor of Athens-Clarke County. “As I look at the data and as I talk with our local public health officials, I don’t see that it’s based on anything that’s logical,” said Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. The decision even received blowback from Kemp’s fellow Republican, President Donald Trump. “I disagree with him on what he’s doing,” Trump said during a briefing on Wednesday.” The move, he said, “is just too soon.”

• New evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 was spreading — and causing deaths — in California much earlier than previously known.

Long before the first official cases of Covid-19 were reported in the United States, the virus was stealthily spreading in cities across the country, according to a number of new studies released this week. Some of the most direct evidence comes from the reanalysis of a series of deaths in California in February. The first was a San Jose woman who unexpectedly died on Feb. 6, following a bout with what family members described as a flu-like illness. But the medical examiner’s office also identified several other deaths in mid-February in the Bay Area, weeks before what had been considered the country’s first Covid-19 death in Kirkland, Washington on Feb. 28. The county’s health director said she now believes the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, had probably infiltrated the San Francisco Bay area by early January. In fact, researchers increasingly suspect that this same situation is likely true in other cities. A new model of the disease’s spread, developed by scientists at Northeastern University, suggests that while on March 1, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, and New York had confirmed 23 cases of the new coronavirus, the real total was more likely closer to 28,000. While some critics said that number might be somewhat high, all agreed that it underlines the failure of the United States to adequately test or prepare for a spreading pandemic. “Meanwhile, in the background, you have this silent chain of transmission of thousands of people,” said Alessandro Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University in Boston.

• Coronavirus stimulus payments are arriving, but not for everyone.

After a rocky initial roll-out by the Internal Revenue Service, the first wave of American citizens eligible for coronavirus relief payments have begun receiving the funds intended to blunt the economic pain inflicted by the pandemic. Early reports find most are spending the money — $1,200 for eligible individuals, along with $500 for children — on essentials like rent, food, and gas. According to a government memo, 80 million people received their payments via direct deposit earlier this month, and the first round of paper checks were scheduled to go in the mail this week. However, given that the IRS plans to issue 5 million checks per week, the last round won’t arrive until early September, on current timelines. And several groups won’t be receiving checks at all — immigrants without a Social Security number, green card, or eligible work visa; spouses of undocumented immigrants if they filed taxes jointly; elderly or disabled people who are claimed as dependents; and dependents ages 17 to 24. The exclusions have drawn criticism from advocates and the affected parties, especially given that many immigrants and their spouses work on the pandemic’s frontlines in health care, public transit, food supply chains, and other jobs now considered essential.

• The United Nations has warned that the Covid-19 crisis could produce widespread famines in vulnerable countries.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to claim countless lives around the globe, officials are now warning that it could also lead to widespread famines in some parts of the world. Speaking to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, World Food Program executive director David Beasley said that, in the worst-case scenario, dozens of countries could be affected, including 10 that each already have more than one million people on the edge of starvation. The economic impacts of Covid-19, including lockdowns and a global recession, could lead to income losses for many people, potentially doubling the number of people facing a food crisis to 260 million. The pandemic is coming at an especially vulnerable time, too: Even before the pandemic hit, Beasley said, conflict, natural disasters, locust swarms, and economic hardship had already made it possible that 2020 would see “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.” In South Africa, Kenya, and other countries, desperation for food has led to looting and stampedes. “Instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us,” one worker in India recently told The New York Times.

• Fresh tumult in the markets spells an uncertain future for the oil and gas industry.

For a few hours on Monday, sellers of West Texas Intermediate crude had to pay people to take the oil off their hands. The price of the key U.S. oil benchmark dipped below zero for the first time ever, falling to around negative $37 per barrel by day’s end. Although prices returned to positive territory on Tuesday, experts believe Monday’s plunge could portend a lasting problem: With the global economy stalled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, energy companies are now producing more oil than the world can use — and they’re running out of places to store it. President Trump has proposed filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help stabilize the market, but experts point out that the reserve could accept only around 2 percent of the 30 million barrels of excess oil the industry produces every day. As oil giants begin the painful process of scaling back production and smaller companies brace for bankruptcy, some U.S. lawmakers are seeking to prop up the industry with aid packages and import restrictions. Meanwhile, some environmentalists are interpreting the market swings as a sign of new opportunities to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

• There’s plenty of excellent reporting and analysis available.

Below is a list of some of the journalists, experts, and publications that Undark is following.

Undark will continue to provide weekly roundups of Covid-19 news each Friday for as long as the pandemic continues. You can find our own Covid-19 coverage here.

Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Francesca Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.