On COVID treatments, Ben Carson points in a dubious direction

Ben Carson contracted a dangerous virus and took an untested botanical extract because a pillow executive encouraged him to do so.
Image: Ben Carson
Ben Carson arrives to a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington on June 7, 2017.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

There was a brief period in August in which Donald Trump thought he'd learned of a new miracle coronavirus cure: a botanical extract called oleandrin. The president reportedly took the alleged treatment quite seriously at the behest of Mike Lindell, who owns a pillow company and who has a financial stake in a company that developed the experimental botanical extract.

Not surprisingly, Trump's fascination was fleeting; legitimate experts warned the public about the possible dangers of oleandrin; and the discussion about the pandemic moved on.

Yesterday, however, the matter unexpectedly returned to the fore. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who announced last week that he'd contracted COVID-19, told the Washington Post that he wasn't too worried about his health because he knew of a treatment: "I heard about the oleander extract from Mike."

"Mike" is Mike Lindell, the pillow magnate who served as a Trump campaign chairman in Minnesota. Oleander extract is an unproven therapeutic remedy for the coronavirus that Lindell has been pushing. Carson said he took the extract, which has not been approved for such purposes by the FDA and which experts say may be dangerous, and within hours his symptoms disappeared — to the delight of Lindell, who has a financial stake in the company that makes the extract.

To know anything about Ben Carson is to know he believes all sorts of weird things. With this in mind, it's not too surprising that he contracted a dangerous virus and took an untested botanical extract because a pillow executive encouraged him to do so.

But in case anyone's tempted to follow the cabinet secretary's lead, it's worth emphasizing that oleandrin is "a potentially toxic, FDA-rejected therapeutic." One doctor told ABC News over the summer, "Don't go near this plant.... Accidentally ingesting even small amounts can kill you."

As for Carson's assertion that his symptoms magically disappeared within hours of taking the extract, I'd just note that (a) we have no reason to believe this is true; (b) the HUD secretary was also probably receiving scientifically tested treatments; and (c) if oleandrin were really a miracle cure, there'd be scientific evidence to bolster claims like these.

All of which is to say, it's almost certainly best not to listen to Ben Carson.