- Misinformation about COVID-19 is spreading online, including many fake cures or treatments for the disease.
- At least seven companies have been warned by the Food and Drug Administration for fraudulent products to treat COVID-19.
- The products cited in these warning letters include teas, essential oils, tinctures, and colloidal silver.
As anxiety over the potential spread of the novel coronavirus has increased, so have the fake treatments and cures for COVID-19, the disease the virus causes.
This prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to send warning letters this week to seven companies for selling “fraudulent COVID-19 products” that claim to prevent or treat the disease.
The products cited in these warning letters include teas, essential oils, tinctures, and colloidal silver. The FDA stated that “there are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat or prevent COVID-19.”
The FDA approval process requires companies to show that their products not only work the way they say they do, but also that they are safe. This involves backing up their claims with well-designed scientific studies.
None of the companies warned by the FDA have gone through this process.
The agencies issued letters to Colloidal Vitality LLC, GuruNanda LLC, Herbal Amy Inc., Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd, The Jim Bakker Show, Vivify Holistic Clinic, and Xephyr LLC dba N-Ergetics.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn said in a news release that the agency “considers the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products to be a threat to the public health.”
The agency will continue to monitor online sources for other fraudulent products, “especially during a significant public health issue such as [the novel coronavirus].”
The warning letters are just the first step. The agency said it will take additional steps against companies if they continue to market unapproved products.
The FTC is also warning consumers about email and phone scams related to COVID-19.
This includes emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), or other government agencies.
Fake health claims on the internet are nothing new.
Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has been documenting and debunking these falsehoods for years.
Now he’s tackling misinformation about COVID-19 “cures,” writing on Twitter: “No, bleach and cow urine won’t help. No, a chiropractic adjustment won’t ‘boost’ your immune system. No, you don’t need supplements from a naturopath. And a HARD no to homeopathy!”
Catherine Troisi, PhD, an epidemiologist with the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, says fake health claims can be dangerous in many situations — like when a person with cancer doesn’t get treated because they’re using something they saw on social media.
But “the difference [with COVID-19] is that there’s a lot of worried people out there who may be susceptible to this type of fake advertising,” she said.
Some claims, like don’t eat ice cream, are just strange, with no basis in reality.
Others, such as eat more garlic, aren’t harmful by themselves — unless they keep you from following medical advice that actually has scientific evidence to back it up.
But some products can be harmful, such as the “miracle mineral supplement,” or MMS. This contains chlorine dioxide, a powerful bleaching agent, which can cause serious side effects, like severe vomiting and diarrhea.
And some homemade cures for COVID-19 can even be deadly.
The Daily Mail reported that at least 44 people in Iran died from alcohol poisoning after drinking bootleg booze, thinking it would slow the spread of the virus.
The best way to slow transmission is by following proven public health advice, such as washing your hands often, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, and staying home if you’re sick.
And clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces — properly.
Some people on social media are recommending that you use natural products like essential oils, but these may not work against the new coronavirus.
The CDC offers advice on cleaning to get rid of coronaviruses, including which products are known to be effective.
Dr. Scott C. Ratzan, distinguished lecturer at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, says we should acknowledge the role of the government in protecting people from health scams, whether they’re fake treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or “cures” for the new coronavirus.
“The U.S. FDA and FTC do a good job in warning people about scam products,” Ratzan said, “yet we need to be prepared to outsmart the social media purveyors before they do harm.”
He recommends that people talk to their doctor or other healthcare provider before using any “cure” for a disease or illness, and ask yourself if the product or service does any harm.
Troisi also applauds the government’s efforts to shut down fraudulent COVID-19 health claims, and says tech companies should do more to prevent the spread of misinformation.
There are signs that these companies are stepping up to the challenge. For example, “COVID-19” searches on Google now display news from mainstream publications, followed by links to the CDC, the WHO, or other health agencies, more prominently.
But Ratzan warns: “Even if Amazon, Facebook, Google, and others are trying to be vigilant, the marketplace and opportunities to prey on fear is a challenge.”
“To fight this pandemic, we need science, not fear,” she said. “To get that science, those [websites] are good places to go.”
Troisi adds that more also needs to be done to make sure that credible information about COVID-19 reaches everyone, including people who aren’t online.
“We just assume everybody is tech savvy, but that’s not true,” she said. “And some people just don’t have access to the internet because of poverty.”