- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2020

It’s a side effect of major public health scares — a surge in falsely advertised cures and bogus medicines — and the coronavirus is not proving immune.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is cautioning the public about companies falsely advertising COVID-19 treatments, while in Iran, 14 people reportedly died drinking industrial-grade ethanol and methanol in the mistaken belief it would protect them from the virus.

Regulators in the U.S. and abroad say concerns over the coronavirus, which has sickened about 110,000, killed 4,000 and disrupted daily life around the globe, have paved the way a flood of unapproved products such as teas, essential oils, tinctures and colloidal silver marketed as being able to treat or prevent COVID-19.

The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission issued warning letters to seven companies accused of selling fraudulent products: Vital Silver, Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd., Xephyr, LLC doing business as N-Ergetics, GuruNanda, LLC, Vivify Holistic Clinic, Herbal Amy LLC, and “The Jim Bakker Show.”

There are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat or prevent COVID-19. Investigational COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are in the early stages of development and have not yet been fully tested.

Companies that sell fraudulent products could face legal action such as seizure or injunction.

FTC Chairman Joe Simons said there is already enough anxiety over the potential spread of the disease.

“What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims. These warning letters are just the first step. We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam,” he said in a statement Monday.

As federal regulators monitor the market for fraudulent products, Bloomberg reported deaths from alcohol poisoning in Iran’s Khuzestan, Tehran and Alborz provinces due to an unfounded rumor that spread through the country that drinking alcohol will kill the virus. Hospitals are seeing a spike in alcohol poisoning cases, with more than 200 hospitalizations in Khuzestan alone, according to Bloomberg, citing various Iranian news agencies.

Social media is also providing a platform for a host of false rumors claiming that drinking bleach and snorting cocaine can treat COVID-19, CBS News reported.

The materialization of false rumors and bogus treatments mirrors reactions from previous outbreaks such as Ebola, H1N1 and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) that prompted the FDA and FTC to intervene.
For the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, federal regulators issued warnings to scammers who marketed personal air purifiers, disinfectant sprays and wipes and dietary supplements like colloidal silver and oregano oil.

During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, the FDA and FTC dealt with fraudulent dietary supplements and ultraviolet treatments claiming to stem the spread of or cure the influenza virus.

Before the FDA approved an Ebola vaccine last year, it warned against online ads promoting nanosilver, herbal oils, vitamin C, CBD dark chocolate bars and snake venom.

Richard Cleland, FTC’s assistant director for the division of advertising practices, said he is seeing many of the same types of products making false claims during different outbreaks. “Most of these are viruses so you’ll get a lot of products that claim, based primarily on some pretty weak science, that they can kill viruses and germs that cause these conditions,” Mr. Cleland said.

He said the FTC is starting to now see air cleaners and other devices on the market with false claims about COVID-19. He said the seven companies contacted by federal regulators are the first to receive warning letters during this coronavirus outbreak.

Amy Weidner, owner of Herbal Amy LLC, was one of the individuals who received a warning letter for the “Coronavirus Protocol” products for sale, which included tinctures and tea, on the company’s website.

The warning letter noted quoted claims of products on the website that “misleadingly represent” them as safe and effective for the treatment or prevention of the coronavirus.

“We are not selling any treatment products. We sell herbs and within the herbal product description I simply quoted an herbalist. That quote has been removed to adhere to the FDA requirements,” said Ms. Weidner. “Because it’s an all natural herbal product, the FDA does not want me to quote anyone saying anything in the product description that would insinuate that it treats, mitigates or cures any diseases.”

David Raes from Vivify Holistic Clinic, another person who received a warning letter, said the company is taking steps to ensure compliance with the FDA and FTC and noted there were multiple disclaimers on its website and no medical claims on the product’s bottles. “Vivify Holistic Clinic supports the FDA and FTC’s mandate to protect the public,” Mr. Raes wrote to the Washington Times, adding the warning letter referenced several parts of quote from a well-known author and herbalist that were unfortunately misattributed to Vivify.

Vivify has removed the quotes and references to the coronavirus. GuruNanda, another company to receive a letter, said it immediately removed any information related to treatment or prevention of COVID-19.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn described the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products as “a threat to public health” and said the agency will continue to surveil online sources for these products.

“We understand consumers are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and urge them to talk to their health care providers, as well as follow advice from other federal agencies about how to prevent the spread of this illness,” Dr. Hahn said.

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