The other day, my girlfriend played a voice message that was forwarded to her. A European-sounding voice was just “passing on information”:
“Drink lots of hot liquids…so that any viruses can wash down into the stomach, allowing gastric juices to neutralize [the virus] before it can get to the lungs.”
(Here’s a link of the audio recording on SoundCloud.)
The advice was said with authority. But we had no idea who the woman was, if her claims are backed by science, and if any of this was real.
With no cure for the coronavirus yet, fear leads people to look for answers. And when looking for answers, basic preventative measures like washing hands and social distancing get ignored.
Misinformation about the coronavirus is so widespread that there’s a dedicated Wikipedia page covering a dizzying array of conspiracy theories and miracle cures.
In this edition, I’ll start with the most dangerous coronavirus “cures,” then cover misinformation on home remedies for the coronavirus.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and nothing I write here should count as medical advice. Please refer to the National Institute of Health and the new Coronavirus.gov page from the CDC for the latest news on Covid-19.
I also started putting together a list of coronavirus health misinformation in a public Google sheet here:
It’s very rough – if you have more suggestions/ideas ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fake coronavirus miracle drugs
The most egregious coronavirus “miracle cures” have lead to serious harm and even death. These products have been marketed as cure-alls to the coronavirus. Some products even have a good amount of conspiracy theorists spreading their claim.
Miracle Mineral Supplement (“MMS”)
The Miracle Mineral Supplement sounds a lot nicer than industrial bleach, but that’s what it is. Also going by Miracle Mineral Solution and Master Mineral Solution, “MMS” is basically chlorine dioxide, a toxic chemical commonly used to sterilize equipment.
If consumed, MMS causes serious side effects like “nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and life-threatening low blood pressure due to dehydration” (Wikipedia).
That doesn’t stop
influencers conspiracy theorists like Jordan Sather to tout it is as a miracle drug for the coronavirus. Here’s more coverage on QAnon conspiracy theorists and their coronavirus claims.
Another influencer has been at it long before Sather. In 2006, a Scientologist named Jim Huble published The Miracle Mineral Solution of the 21st Century. Huble claims to have “treated” 100,000 victims of malaria in Africa. There’s no viable science to back up the MMS health claims, except for the many deaths caused by consuming it.
In 2016, Jim Huble admitted on ABC News that MMS cures nothing.
Verdict: This message from the FDA says “Danger: don’t drink miracle mineral solution or similar products.”
Colloidal silver is a liquid containing silver particles. It’s been marketed as a dietary supplement that claims to boost the immune system, treat cancer, and yes – fight viruses.
So big, that televangelist Jim Bakker has been sued for promoting a “Silver Solution” that claims to totally kill the coronavirus.
I’m fascinated by one the side effects of colloidal silver – argyria – which can make consumers develop irreversibly bluish skin (like this man). That’s in addition to serious organ damage that it can have on the body.
The FDA flat out said that products containing colloidal silver are not safe, stating “there are serious and complicating aspects to many of the diseases these silver ingredients purport to treat or prevent.”
Verdict: Colloidal silver doesn’t work. Staying inside can be depressing, but don’t go crazy and get the blues on purpose.
Sadly, the death of a man made headlines after he and his wife consumed a cleaning agent for their fish. They had mistaken that the additive in the cleaner, chloroquine phosphate, would be just as effective as the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.
Chloroquine was discovered in 1934 by Hans Andersag at Bayer (the drug giant), and became a popular antimalarial drug after World War II. It’s actually on the World Health Organization’s model list of essential medicines (2019 edition).
However, chloroquine comes with some deadly side effects including fever, vomiting and even attempts to kill oneself. For more interesting history about the discovery, check out this Science Mag article.
Verdict: Although chloroquine is being studied on how it might improve treatment for patients diagnosed with pneumonia resulting from coronavirus, there’s still no consensus on what drugs are effective for treating COVID-19.
Unproven coronavirus remedies and alternative medicine
In early March 2020, the FDA and FTC sent warning letters to seven companies making deceptive claims about their ability to treat the coronavirus. (If you’re curious what an FDA warning letter looks like, here’s the one sent to Herbal Amy.)
While the miracle coronavirus cures mentioned above are dangerous, misinformation about natural products have their own danger. They can offer a false sense of security or encourage people to take too much of otherwise harmless products.
Companies are taking advantage of people’s fear to promote homeopathic remedies so much that Amazon has removed more than 1 million products for false coronavirus claims.
We’re going to cover some of these “coronavirus products” now.
I love essential oils for their smell and would like to think they have some therapeutic properties. But companies like Quinessence and GuruNanda have been falsely advertising that essential oils and aromatherapy can protect against the coronavirus.
What are essential oils? Essential oils contain the “essence” of a plant’s fragrance, and are not meant to be indispensable to health like essential amino acids are. Essential oils are often used for therapeutic purposes in aromatherapy and sometimes used directly on the skin.
DoTerra is among the biggest multi-level marketing companies selling essential oils. While the company itself does not claim that essential oils can cure the coronavirus, their individual sellers do. And when you have top beauty influencers like Michelle Phan promoting “antiviral essential oils,” people will start believing.
Aromatherapy (with essential oils) may help induce relaxation, but this overview of scientific reviews conclude that “evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.”
Verdict: Essential oils are nice to smell, but are completely unessential to preventing the coronavirus.
Herbs and Traditional Chinese Medicine (“TCM”)
Herbs have long been touted to cure all sorts of maladies. I think that because herbs come from plants, people associate them with “natural” and “ancient” forms of healing.
The story gets a bit interesting here. While numerous drug trials for the coronavirus are happening, treatments using Traditional Chinese Medicine (“TCM”) are also being reviewed. This article from Nature looks at herbs like liquorice root extract that are now approved for clinical trials in China.
Seems promising: “Some practices from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) have shown some benefit in symptom relief for a variety of conditions, much of the evidence for the popular practice’s effectiveness is inconclusive.” (MedicineNet)
Verdict: While herbs may confer some health benefits, no herb, Chinese medicine or “ancient” remedies has been proven to treat the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Any healthy food that’s enjoyed a good reputation is game for being called the next coronavirus cure.
Here’s a review of some of the more popular foods that made the rounds of the coronavirus rumor mill.
This article fact checks the many claims that boiling ginger and drinking it on an empty stomach will cure the coronavirus. The claim further goes on to say that drinking hot liquids help because the coronavirus can’t live in warm environments.
Verdict: Consuming boiled ginger does not cure or prevent the coronavirus, but it’s harmless to consume in normal quantities.
Like ginger, garlic has antimicrobial properties. Maybe that’s why claims that consuming garlic can treat the coronavirus have surfaced. From the WHO, “There is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from 2019-nCoV.”
Verdict: Consuming garlic does not cure or prevent the coronavirus, but the resulting bad breath can help with social distancing.
There’s also another rumor circling that gargling your mouth with salt, water and vinegar can prevent the coronavirus. You already know the drill – it’s no cure for COVID.
Verdict: Sour news; vinegar is not a treatment for COVID-19.
A popular rumor has spread that “slices of lemon in a cup of lukewarm water can save your life” and protect you from the coronavirus. Lemon frequently makes its rounds as a panacea, and has also been claimed to cure cancer.
One claim is that lemons help by “alkalizing” the body, which has been debunked. The larger claim is that lemon contains vitamin C. While that’s true, Vitamin C has not been proven to treat the coronavirus (more on this in a bit). Several other fruits like kiwis contain more vitamin C than lemons.
Verdict: This cure is a lemon.
Vitamins & supplements
As much as I love my vitamin gummies, the claims that vitamins can treat coronavirus aren’t true.
But there is promising data on some vitamins:
Zinc: there’s some evidence that zinc inhibit the replication of viruses
While taking multivitamins wouldn’t hurt most people, one CDC report estimated that 90% of Americans get enough essential vitamins.
The CDC estimated that ~23,000 emergency room visits annually in the U.S. can be attributed supplement misuse.
Some thoughts from medical professionals:
“There is some reason to hypothesize that some vitamins and supplements could reduce the risk and severity of COVID-19 because of benefits seen for other viral or respiratory disease.” (Dr. Walter Willett)
“The only impact that vitamins and supplements may have in any cold or flu is to lessen the severity.” (Dr. Caroline Apovian)
To see a great overall resource on supplements, check out the National Institute of Health’s Supplement Fact Sheet.
Verdict: The basics of good diet and good sleep are the most important factors for people to stay healthy during the coronavirus. Multivitamins are relatively low risk taken at normal dosages.
Good sources covering coronavirus health misinformation
It’s insane how much health misinformation is out there. Despite this lengthy article, I’ve only cracked the surface.
I’ve relied heavily on news sources and science journals for this article. I’ll link to some of my favorite sources that do round-ups of health misinformation on the coronavirus:
World Health Organization’s list of coronavirus myth busters
Wikipedia’s Misinformation related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic thread
Coronavirus fact checks and debunking list by AFP (global news source)
Buzzfeed News’ ongoing coverage of the coronavirus disinformation spread
IRPP.org’s coverage on alternative medicine misinformation