IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that a virus in possession of a good transmission rate must be in want of a fake cure …
The COVID-19 virus is not the only thing that has been spreading wildly around the world in recent weeks.
Predictably enough, the global pandemic has opened the door to an unsavoury rabble of fraudsters, phishers and conspiracy theorists seeking to take advantage of the crisis.
Some impersonate health authorities – the World Health Organization is a favourite – in order to sell fake products or steal personal and financial details, while others just spout the usual antiscience babble to spruik treatments even less likely to be successful than a commando raid on your local supermarket in search of a jumbo pack of toilet paper.*
The champions of pseudo-medicine have rallied to the cause, confident that products capable of curing every other illness known to humanity would not be daunted by some upstart new viral strain.
To protect yourself from the virus, you could, for example, turn to my old mate, the Miracle Mineral Solution. Advocates recommend drinking or gargling the product to prevent the virus from taking hold (for the record, it is actually bleach and has been the subject of multiple previous warnings from health authorities).
Or there’s the ever-reliable colloidal silver. US televangelist Jim Bakker hosted a naturopath on his show to claim the substance could eliminate SARS-CoV-2 – “Kills it. Deactivates it.” – while ads for the product scrolled across the screen.
Bakker and a number of other commercial operators received official warnings from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month for marketing products claimed to be effective against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Fraudulent claims cited by the FDA included:
Preventing The Contraction Of The Novel Coronavirus is Elementary … Even though there are no vaccines available to combat these coronaviruses, there is a home remedy of Colloidal Silver 100 ppm that has worked effectively on coronaviruses successfully for the last 123 years…
With active [coronavirus] infection: very strong boneset tea, to 6xday
The most powerful anti-virus essential oils to provide defence against coronavirus include: Basil; Bergamot; Cajuput; Cedarwood Virginian; Cinnamon; Clove Bud; Eucalyptus Globulus, Radiata and Smithii; Juniper Berry; Lavender Spike; Laurel leaf; Lemon; Manuka; Niaouli; Peppermint; Ravensara; Ravintsara; Rosemary; Sage; Tea Tree; Thyme Sweet and Thyme White
The FDA has also warned about fake home test kits, and fraudulent marketing of dietary supplements, foods, drugs, medical devices and vaccines.
Australian regulators have also issued warnings about misleading advertising and other fraudulent practices related to the virus.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says it is receiving increasing reports of virus-related scams, including “fake online stores selling products claiming to be a vaccine or cure for coronavirus” or charging customers for face masks that are never delivered.
Meanwhile, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has warned about complementary medicines and disinfectants being inappropriately promoted for prevention or treatment of the virus. The agency recently fined a supplier of hyperbaric oxygen chambers for making therapeutic claims related to COVID-19.
Even those who should know better sometimes buy into the nonsense. On a visit to a pharmacy a few weeks ago, in a doomed attempt to buy hand sanitiser, I was instead directed towards the supplements section for products to “boost my immune system”.
Does it matter if people attempt to ward off disease with vitamin C tablets or, as advocated in one widely shared social media post, by drinking hot water?
Such practices may not help, other than by giving people some feeling of control in a frightening situation, but they’re unlikely to actively harm either.
Except … there’s always the danger that hot lemon gargle could create a false sense of complacency, leading people to engage in riskier behaviour or to neglect measures that do make a difference such as physical distancing and hand washing.
Not to mention the broader impact of undermining general belief in evidence and the scientific process, which just opens the door to the hosts of charlatans waiting to exploit the vulnerable in a time of crisis.
* What is it about toilet paper? Dr Freud would have a field day.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.