LIMA, Peru — Peru's congress has prompted ridicule by voting to investigate whether drinking or injecting an industrial bleach could cure COVID-19.
Lawmakers voted 49 to 39 in favor of the motion on Thursday night to set up a committee to hear testimony about chlorine dioxide from health ministry officials and “scientists and experts in the field.” The chemical is widely available online and with hospitals overflowing, some are using it to self-medicate at home.
Chlorine dioxide — which doctors warn is ineffective against the coronavirus and can have lethal consequences — is commonly used in industrial processes, including to bleach wood pulp to make paper, as well as sterilizing medical equipment and disinfecting water, fruit and vegetables.
Although it can be used, under supervision, as a mouthwash in dental surgeries, the US Food and Drug Administration warns that it should not be ingested because it can cause a range of health issues, from diarrhea, vomiting and internal bleeding to “respiratory failure” and “acute kidney failure.”
Nevertheless, it has long been falsely touted as a cure for various conditions, from AIDS and cancer to autism.
In a move reminiscent of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s infamous rambling about the potential benefits of injecting disinfectant, Peruvian lawmaker Posemoscrowte Chagua introduced the motion by insinuating that the scientific community was spreading disinformation about chlorine dioxide’s potential benefits.
Instead, Chagua, from the extremist Union for Peru party, who is himself a medical doctor, blasted those who say that “chlorine dioxide is absolutely toxic, that it’s a bleach that doesn’t cure coronavirus.”
The vote comes as Peru continues to reel from a devastating COVID-19 surge.
The South American nation has the highest reported per capita COVID-19 death rate in the world. Although case numbers and fatalities have now started to decline, April 2021 was the pandemic’s deadliest month in the Andean nation.
Samuel Cosmé, general secretary of Peru’s society of intensive care specialists, condemned congress’s move, warning that he had had to treat COVID-19 patients whose already serious condition had been worsened by consuming chlorine dioxide.
“The situation with the pandemic in Peru is lamentable, and so is the situation in our congress,” said Dr Cosmé.
He added that the anecdotal evidence for chlorine dioxide was meaningless given that around 80 percent of patients with symptoms recover without needing medical assistance anyway.
Ed Malaga-Trillo, a neuroscientist and congressman-elect for the small, centrist Purple Party, tweeted that the vote was an “embarrassment.”
The move is just the latest by Peru’s political class that, critics say, flies in the face of science and has sabotaged efforts to respond to the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, one lawmaker even claimed that airplanes were spraying the coronavirus on his constituents. Since then, multiple Peruvian politicians have ignored the scientific research by championing the use of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial, and ivermectin, an antiparasitic, to prevent or treat COVID-19.
Last November, lawmakers controversially ousted President Martín Vizcarra on unproven corruption charges just as his government was negotiating deals to import millions of vaccines. That prompted accusations earlier this month that, were it not for congress, two million more Peruvians would already have been vaccinated.
Then, earlier this year, there was the “vaccinegate” scandal that saw hundreds of VIPs and politicians jump the national vaccine queue to secretly get their jabs, prompting national outrage and also complicating the negotiations with Sinopharm, the Chinese vaccine manufacturer.
So far, Peru has administered 2.2 million vaccine doses, with 730,000 people now fully vaccinated.
Now, Peru heads towards a June 6 presidential runoff between two autocratic and socially conservative candidates who each routinely flout social distancing at their campaign rallies and appear to have a shaky grasp of the science around the pandemic.
Far-left candidate Pedro Castillo has yet to reveal whether he even has any coronavirus advisors.
His far-right adversary, Keiko Fujimori, has named a former public health official with a molecular biology PhD from Johns Hopkins University, Ernesto Bustamante, as her principal public health expert. Yet Bustamante was the propagator of arguably Peru’s most egregious episode of COVID-19 vaccine disinformation.
In March, he claimed that the Sinopharm shot, which is 90 percent effective according to the World Health Organization and is expected to be the most used in Peru, was effectively “distilled water” that actually raised recipients’ chance of contracting the disease.
That false claim was then used by another ultra-conservative candidate in a failed attempt to oust interim President Francisco Sagasti just one month before April’s general election, generating further instability just as the pandemic second wave crashed across the country.
Bustamante is now tipped to become health minister, should Fujimori win the presidency. Initially facing a 20-point deficit against Castillo, she has been catching up rapidly and some pundits now view her as the favorite.