The claim: Ultraviolet light has been injected into the body for years as a treatment to kill bacteria and viruses
As President Donald Trump received pushback for floating the idea that COVID-19 patients could receive treatment using ultraviolet light or injections of disinfectants, many people on social media raced to his defense with claims about the use of UV light as a medical treatment.
On Facebook, several posts with the same photo of a person’s arm hooked up to a glowing tube claimed that ultraviolet light has been used for years to kill bacteria and viruses in the bloodstream.
“For all of you dummies that have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about" the posts say, referring to Trump, "UV light is injected into the body as a disinfectant to kill bacteria and viruses and this has been used for a while now.”
The posts go on to describe “ultraviolet blood irradiation,” or UBI, as a procedure that exposes blood to light in order to boost the body’s immune system response and kill infections.
The posts also say that “fake news” sites like CNN and MSNBC are the ones spreading misinformation that the president advised people to inject themselves with bleach or other disinfectants.
Trump's remarks about UV radiation, disinfectant
During an April 23 White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, Bill Bryan, undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, briefed reporters on a study that found the virus's lifespan could be cut short by exposure to factors like sunlight and humidity.
Bryan cautioned that people shouldn't use the preliminary findings to modify their behavior. The factors were studied on surfaces or in air, not inside a person's body.
Upon taking the podium, Trump then said he had asked Bryan earlier about using ultraviolet light to treat the disease in the human body.
“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,” he said. “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.”
The International Ultraviolet Association and RadTech North America, two industry groups made up of equipment vendors, scientists, engineers and medical professionals who deal with ultraviolet light, discouraged the exposure of parts of the body to ultraviolet light as a disinfectant against coronavirus.
“We would like to inform the public that there are no protocols to advise or permit the safe use of UV light directly on the human body at the wavelengths and exposures proven to efficiently kill viruses such as SARS-CoV-2,” a joint news release stated.
Trump on April 24 said the comment was meant to be sarcastic and referred to the use of disinfectant on the hands. The White House issued a statement that day blaming media for quoting him out of context.
Ultraviolet light as a disinfectant
Ultraviolet light has been used for disinfection for more than 100 years, according to the International Ultraviolet Association.
The association's website explains ultraviolet light can be broken up into four categories: UV-A, UV-B, UV-C and vacuum-UV. Each category includes a specific range of wavelengths.
UV-A and UV-B are found in sunlight and can cause sunburns or, eventually, melanoma. They are also at times used for disinfection.
UV-C, a lower and more powerful wavelength of ultraviolet light than found in sunlight, is commonly used for disinfection in water treatment facilities, surfaces and in hospital settings. It's effective because the radiation inactivates cells from reproducing. So far, no microorganisms have shown immunity to UV exposure.
"For years, we've used UV on air and surfaces and on hospital rooms, with no humans in the room," Jim Malley, an ultraviolet light expert and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire, told USA TODAY. "We protect ourselves in the laboratory with face shields and gloves to keep the UV away from our eyes and our skin."
There are also contexts in which controlled ultraviolet light is used as a medical treatment. For example, the American Cancer Society's website explains that doctors may use fluorescent lamps to administer carefully controlled UV-A and UV-B treatments for those with skin lymphoma.
What is ultraviolet blood irradiation?
The use of ultraviolet light to "treat" blood as a cure for various ailments has been around for years. Known as ultraviolet blood irradiation, or "BioPhonic Therapy," it has not gained widespread acceptance.
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The process generally involves withdrawing a measure of blood and running it through a machine that exposes it to ultraviolet rays. The blood is then reintroduced into the person's body. One website advocating for UBI says the process creates a response in the immune system called an “autogenous vaccine," which "stimulates the immune system to destroy any and all pathogens."
The website includes a lengthy list of diseases aided by the treatment, including lymphoma, various viral infections, bacterial infections, autoimmune diseases, circulation conditions and inflammatory conditions.
In 2015, a company called UVLrx Therapautics began marketing a machine called the UVLrx 1500 in the European Union, touting that it, for the first time, eliminated the need to withdraw blood from the body to perform UBI.
The system used an IV catheter to administer a 60-minute treatment into the bloodstream. The treatment included a half-hour of red light and UV-A wavelengths, followed by a half-hour of red and green light wavelengths, according to a news release.
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In 2016, Forbes reported the device had begun appearing at alternative medicine practices in the U.S. without approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The company said it was beginning clinical trials of the device.
Forbes cited an archived version of the UVLrx website, which no longer exists, that listed the conditions the clinical trial expected to explore, including dengue fever, tuberculosis, sepsis, sports-related injuries, HIV and Hepatitis C, Lyme disease and others. The file for the trial at clinicaltrials.gov, last updated in October 2016, does not include the results of the trial.
Medical experts: UBI is not an effective treatment for killing viruses
UBI has faced criticism from medical experts, who say the procedure lacks clinical trials and studies that show its effectiveness.
Dr. Michael Hamblin, a former principal investigator at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, wrote in a 2018 paper that UBI has become known as the "cure that time forgot."
It was used broadly in the 1940s and 1950s as a treatment for many diseases, although its use diminished with the rise of antibiotics, Hamblin wrote. In the years since, UBI has been studied more in Russia and Eastern countries than in the U.S.
Hamblin wrote more study should be conducted on the treatment, as there is confusion regarding what is happening during the treatment and has led to controversy about its use.
"Over the years, its acceptance by the broad medical community has been hindered by this uncertainty," he wrote, later adding that another source of confusion is the wide array of diseases that some claim UBI can treat, which can appear "too good to be true."
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Dr. Edzard Ernst, professor emeritus at the University of Exeter and an authority on complementary medicine, wrote a blog post about UBI following Trump's comments last week, in which he called it "an invasive treatment where lots of things might go badly wrong."
"Yes, there are quite a few papers on UBI and related methods," he said. "But most of them are in-vitro studies, while robust clinical trials are missing completely."
Dr. Mitchell Grayson, a professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Ohio State University, told USA TODAY he has not had experience with any sort of ultraviolet light injection like the one shown in the photograph.
"It doesn't make any sense, from a medical standpoint," he said.
And since coronavirus lives primarily in a person's lung and intestinal cells, Grayson said he would be skeptical about the effectiveness of ultraviolet irradiation in the bloodstream as a prospective treatment for COVID-19.
"If someone coughs on a park bench, and it’s out in the sunlight for a few hours, that is probably going to work," he said. "Or if the blood bank wants to make sure there’s no coronavirus in blood products, they can irradiate it. But in a living being, I think it’s unlikely to be done and successful."
Our ruling: False
While ultraviolet blood irradiation exists, it is unproven as an effective treatment in killing infections and is not widely used.
There have been studies on ultraviolet blood irradiation in the past, but experts say such treatments need proven clinical trials to gain acceptance among the wider medical community. There is also not research proving UBI as a treatment for the coronavirus.
Based on our research, we rule as FALSE the claim that UV light has been injected into the body for years to kill viruses and bacteria.
Our fact-check sources:USA Today: Medical experts rip Trump’s suggestion that sunlight, disinfectants may treat coronavirus White House: Transcript of April 23 Coronavirus Task Force briefingC-SPAN: President Trump clarifies comments about disinfectant as treatment for coronavirusInternational Ultraviolet Association: UV industry associations discourage the use of UV light on the human body to disinfect against the coronavirusAmerican Cancer Society: Phototherapy (UV light therapy)National Library of Medicine: Ultraviolet Irradiation of Blood: 'The Cure That Time Forgot'?Forbes: UVLrx therapy lights up charlatans dealing in medical devicesPhysicians UBI Awareness Center: Information on UBIBusiness Wire: UVLrx Therapeutics receives CE marking for intravenous UV light therapy deviceDr. Edzard Ernst: Trump seems to think that UV might be the answer to the corona-pandemic – could he mean 'ultraviolet blood irradiation'?
Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.
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