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Trump says "we'll look at" treating COVID with an untested, toxic plant extract touted by MyPillow CEO

CBS News questions Trump on oleandrin
CBS News questions Trump on oleandrin 00:36

President Trump suggested he's open to looking at a botanical extract being touted by a major donor, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, as a treatment for COVID-19, even though it comes from a poisonous plant and there have been no medical studies to show if it's safe or effective in people.

Asked on Monday by CBS News' Paula Reid whether he's urging the Food and Drug Administration to authorize the use of oleandrin, extracted from the Nerium oleander plant, to treat the virus, the president responded, "No, I haven't." He added, "I've heard of it, yes."

And he asked Reid, "Is it something that people are talking about very strongly? We'll look at it."

The oleander plant is extremely toxic. "All parts of the plant are poisonous. If eaten, it causes cardiac arrhythmias, or irregular heart rates, and can be lethal to both humans and animals," medical ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave wrote Tuesday in "The Conversation."

Lindell, whom the president has called "a supporter from day one," joined the board of Phoenix Biotechnology last week — the company seeking to develop and market the product. Lindell does not have a scientific background.

Lindell says the CEO of the company, Andrew Whitney, contacted him on Easter Sunday to tout the extract as a cure. According to the Washington Post, Lindell helped set up a meeting enabling Whitney to make a pitch to the president in person at the White House. 

In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Lindell said he has been taking oleandrin since April and referred to it as "the miracle of all time." He claimed that the extract has been tested on humans but offered no evidence of this. A study that has not been published and has not been peer reviewed examined the effect of oleandrin on African green monkey cells in a test tube and found that it "greatly" reduced virus production. 

The lead researcher on that study is pushing back against the company's claims. Dr. Scott Weaver, a virologist at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said in a statement to CBS News that the lab results are "only the first step" and do not necessarily predict that a drug made from the substance would be effective in humans.

Quave, an assistant professor at Emory University who was not involved in the study, noted that this test doesn't address the "well-known cardiac toxicity of the chemical when consumed by an animal or human."

She worries that some might ingest the plant, hoping to cure COVID-19, pointing out that it has in the past caused accidental poisoning.

"It is critical that the Food and Drug Administration and its commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, make certain the public is protected from this poison," Quave wrote.

Whitney told Axios the study is in the process of being peer reviewed and said that there is more than one way to get oleandrin to consumers. He said he's exploring the process of seeking approval for it as a drug to treat COVID-19, but he's also pushing to obtain FDA approval to sell it as a dietary supplement, which he says could be accomplished quickly.

Gabrielle Ake, Nicole Sganga and Michael Kaplan contributed to this report.

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