The day coronavirus became the number one cause of death among Americans, US president Donald Trump appeared to confuse the viral disease with a bacterial infection which could be treated with antibiotics.
In a meandering address to journalists on Friday which lasted over two hours and veered between incomprehensibility and flippancy, the president pondered the nature of the deadly virus, which he described as a “very brilliant enemy”, and a “genius”.
Despite the grave threat Covid-19 poses to the global economy, Mr Trump revealed the deficiency in his understanding of how the disease spreads and how it may be treated.
Asked by a journalist about the level of testing for the coronavirus across the US, the president answered: “This is a very brilliant enemy. You know, it’s a brilliant enemy. They develop drugs like the antibiotics. You see it. Antibiotics used to solve every problem. Now one of the biggest problems the world has is the germ has gotten so brilliant that the antibiotic can’t keep up with it.
“And they’re constantly trying to come up with a new – people go to a hospital and they catch – they go for a heart operation – that’s no problem, but they end up dying from – from problems. You know the problems I’m talking about. There’s a whole genius to it.”
He added: “We’re fighting – not only is it hidden, but it’s very smart. Okay? It’s invisible and it’s hidden, but it’s – it’s very smart.”
Though it is unclear whether Mr Trump was directly suggesting the disease may once have been treatable with antibiotics, the president’s allusions to antibiotic resistance are misguided. As the World Health Organisation states: “Antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria.”
On its page titled “Myth Busters”, the organisation advises: “The new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a virus and, therefore, antibiotics should not be used as a means of prevention or treatment.
“However, if you are hospitalised for the 2019-nCoV, you may receive antibiotics because bacterial co-infection is possible.”
Philosopher and author AC Grayling tweeted: “Trump doesn’t know that antibiotics target bacteria not viruses. Covid-19 is a virus. Trump is an idiot. He is a dangerous idiot.”
Biologist and University of Hertfordshire and Anglia Ruskin University lecturer Dr Mark D’Arcy said: “Trump showing that despite being briefed every day about the pandemic for weeks now, he still doesn’t know the difference between a virus and bacteria!”
UCL lecturer and author Brian Klaas wrote: “As the US outbreak approaches 20,000 deaths, Trump appears to believe that the coronavirus is a bacterial pathogen. The coronavirus is – it may surprise you to find out – a virus.”
Walter Shaub, the former director of the US government’s Office for Ethics wrote on Twitter: “Trump says that this ‘germ’, meaning the virus, is especially ‘brilliant’ because it can’t be stopped by antibiotics, which work only on bacteria and not viruses. Now might be a good time to tell the people close to you that you love them.”
Concern over Mr Trump’s daily press briefings, which often last several hours, is building as support over his handling of the crisis is crumbling.
Though Mr Trump’s approval rating spiked as the first cases of coronavirus arrived in the US, his numbers have dwindled back to their pre-virus levels amid apparent concern over the government’s response to the pandemic.
American approval of the president on his handling of Covid-19 dropped six points from last week (48 per cent) to 42 per cent this week, according to an Ipsos/Reuters poll.
On Friday the US became the first country in the world to record more than 2,000 deaths from the disease in a single day.
More than half a million US citizens are now infected, and it is estimated America could soon surpass Italy to become the country with the greatest total number of coronavirus deaths worldwide.
On Friday, Mr Trump caused further confusion when asked how soon restrictions on the US could be lifted.
“I want to get it open as soon as we can. We have to get our country open,” Mr Trump replied.
Asked what “metrics” he would use to make that assessment, according to the official White House transcripts, Mr Trump responded: “The metrics right here. (Points to head.) That’s my metrics.”
He added: “That’s all I can do. I can listen to 35 people. At the end, I got to make a decision.
“And I didn’t think of it until yesterday. I said, ‘You know, this is a big decision.’ But I want to be guided. I’m going to be guided by them. I’m going to be guided by our Vice President. I’m going to make a decision based on a lot of different opinions. Some will maybe disagree, and some I’d love to see it where they don’t disagree.
“Will there be risks? There’s always going to be a risk that something can flare up. There’s always going to – look, look at what’s happening where countries are trying to get open and there’s a flare-up and they’ll go. But I’d like the flare-up to be very localised so that we can control it from a local standpoint without having to close.
“It’s – it’s – there’s always a risk. This is a – this is genius that we’re fighting. You know, we’re fighting this hidden enemy, which is genius. Okay? It’s genius, the way it’s attacked so many countries at so many different angles.”