SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Grover López lay back on a cot as Dr. Viviana Figueroa inserted an IV into his arm. You’ll have to wait here 12 hours while the solution drips into your bloodstream, Figueroa said, telling him the substance would eliminate the metals she said were wreaking havoc on his body.
A mix of chlorine dioxide—an industrial bleach used to disinfect swimming pools and floors—and saline seeped into López’s body through the IV. He’d brought a book for the wait.
“How are you feeling?” Figueroa asked López.
“I am fine. But I’m depressed,” he said.
“We are going to fix that. Don’t you worry,” she assured him, her face mask off despite a sign in her office saying they were obligatory. It was only a show for the authorities, she said.
If injecting bleach sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because former U.S. President Donald Trump famously suggested people could inject or drink disinfectant to kill COVID-19, triggering a short-lived fad in the U.S. and an outcry among health professionals.
But across Latin America, the use of chlorine dioxide to prevent and treat COVID, and even combat the “toxic effects” of vaccines, has taken off, in forms like sprays and intravenous infusions.
Nowhere has the “treatment” gained as much legitimacy as in Bolivia, where the country’s left-wing government legalized the production and sale of chlorine dioxide last year as an alternative treatment for COVID.
Promoters of chlorine dioxide claim it prevents and cures COVID by killing viruses inside the body, just like it does on surfaces. There’s no scientific evidence for that. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that drinking it can cause fatal respiratory failure and heart arrhythmia, among other life-threatening conditions. The Pan American Health Organization says consuming chlorine dioxide products can “cause serious adverse effects” and the marketing of such products to treat COVID should be reported to the authorities.
“People are looking for easy solutions. It’s a rich field for charlatans to prey on,” said René Soria Saucedo, an epidemiologist in Bolivia. “We have enough on our plate with COVID alone, but now we are seeing even more complicated cases because people have consumed chlorine dioxide. It’s a burden on the health system that’s not manageable in this country.”
In the industrial city of Santa Cruz, Grover López, a 58-year-old former accountant, explained his decision to get chlorine dioxide intravenously. As COVID vaccines began rolling out, he started reading on the internet that they contain graphene oxide, a chemical compound that’s a highly versatile conductive material.
While none of the COVID vaccines contain graphene oxide, anti-vaxxers have seized on this mistruth to claim that they introduce metals to the body. López said he was resistant to getting the shot, but as COVID cases surged in Santa Cruz, he got scared “and ran to get vaccinated.” Around 28 percent of Bolivia’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID. López received his second dose of the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm in June.
By July, COVID infections had dropped, and López was worried. Dr. Figueroa told him the vaccine could kill him because he suffers from diabetes. One month after López’s second dose, he was in Figueroa’s cramped office getting his first infusion of chlorine dioxide in order to be “detoxified.”
An hour into the treatment, López said he was pain-free and sweating out a “metallic” scent, which made him optimistic it was working.
Figueroa, who is a medical surgeon, said she is overwhelmed with patients seeking her detoxification services. She charges around $150 for a three-day course of intravenous chlorine dioxide. That’s a lot of money in Bolivia, where most people earn around $700 a month. “I’m at my limit,” Figueroa told us, adding that four vaccinated people arrive daily seeking chlorine dioxide injections.
She was accompanied by her chlorine dioxide provider Fernando Arce, a computer engineer who’s been making the substance for 13 years. In a surreal conversation, they claimed the vaccine amounted to a “genocide,” that people who’ve been vaccinated against COVID would die in a matter of years, and that those who don’t die will become infertile.
Arce also claimed that the medical establishment refuses to recognize the supposed miraculous powers of chlorine dioxide because they’ve “indoctrinated us to think that’s not possible.” When we asked who he was referring to, Arce said the “dynasties,” and named the Rockefellers, the Morgans (as in J.P. Morgan) and the Rothschilds, all of whom he said “want to maintain their fortunes and their control, their global domination.”
There is no basis for Arce’s allegations. Still, he and other prominent anti-vax, pro-bleach advocates shaped Bolivian’s early response to the pandemic. People lined up outside pharmacies to buy chlorine dioxide disinfectant intended for cleaning vegetables. Most people VICE World News spoke with in Bolivia had drunk the substance or knew someone who had.
Arce said he made around $12,000 a month selling his chlorine dioxide solution at the pandemic’s onset, although business has waned because of competition and the rollout of vaccines. We saw multiple homemade signs advertising the sale of chlorine dioxide, and, on a major road in the Bolivian capital La Paz, a large graffiti sign declared: “No to the Jewish vaccine.”
Bolivia’s love affair with bleach might be very different if it weren’t for the ouster of long-serving leftist President Evo Morales, who resigned under pressure from the military in November 2019 amid claims of election fraud. In the fight for power that ensued, chlorine dioxide became a bizarre wedge issue.
After Morales fled the country, he was replaced by Jeanine Áñez, an evangelical lawmaker from the conservative opposition, who declared herself interim president. Áñez immediately alienated Bolivia’s large indigenous population by naming an all-white cabinet and declaring “the Bible has returned to the [presidential] palace.” Support for Áñez further plummeted when, four months later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, and she imposed a strict lockdown that critics said left people on the verge of starvation.
It was around this time that promoters of chlorine dioxide began peddling the substance to people desperate to survive the pandemic. Declaring it a fraud, Áñez’s health minister threatened to prosecute those who falsely promoted chlorine dioxide as a COVID treatment “with the full power of the law.”
But with new presidential elections on the horizon, members of the left-wing opposition embraced chlorine dioxide, whether out of true conviction or political calculation. In July 2020, the Bolivian Senate, which was controlled by Morales’ Movement for Socialism party, passed a bill approving the supply and use of chlorine dioxide for the prevention and treatment of COVID. On October 14, the Senate declared the legislation law. Áñez’s health ministry protested that the Senate had no authority to enact the law, but it hardly mattered. Four days later, new presidential elections were held, and the leftist candidate won.
“There were no vaccines. We didn’t know when those were going to show up. We had no medicine, so we had to find other things to get better,” Eva Copa, who presided over the law’s passage as head of the Senate, told VICE World News in a passionate defense of the law.
Copa said drinking chlorine dioxide cured her when she came down with COVID in the summer of 2020, and she continues to use it in spray form on her face and hands. Plus, she added, the substance was already being sold clandestinely, so the law gave the government the tools to regulate it.
“People live hand to mouth working in the informal economy. A day without work is a day without food. In a moment of despair, people will take what they can get,” said Copa, who is now mayor of El Alto, one of Bolivia’s biggest cities. “It’s better to regulate chlorine dioxide instead of people buying it on the black market.”
But the law did more than regulate the substance. Universities began producing and selling it. The country’s military academy of engineering, which had already been “studying” it, began marketing and selling chlorine dioxide products to the public, including sprays and “virus block” necklaces that supposedly create an antiviral cloud that prevents the wearer from contracting COVID. The sale of such sprays and necklaces is prohibited in the U.S.
The rector of the military academy, Col. Javier Antonio Jiménez Terán, acknowledged the lack of scientific evidence showing chlorine dioxide is effective in treating COVID. Instead, he insisted, repeatedly, that the academy’s lab had proven the concentration of chlorine dioxide in their products isn’t toxic. He called chlorine dioxide an alternative and said the academy is providing a service to the Bolivian people by producing it.
Jiménez doesn’t use chlorine dioxide himself, citing a sensitive digestive system he needs to be careful with. When asked if he’d recommend it to a friend, he told us, “I would recommend that he follow his heart. Because believing in this product is a matter of faith.”
“Do you think I care?”
Faith is at the core of efforts to market chlorine dioxide as a magical elixir. The man credited with discovering the solution’s curative properties, Jim Humble, claimed to have had a vision about it during a 1996 gold-mining expedition to South America. When his colleagues came down with malaria, he gave them drops of the chlorine dioxide water purifier he’d brought. Four hours later, he said, they were miraculously cured.
Humble named his discovery “Miracle Mineral Solution” and began peddling it in Africa and Latin America as a cure for malaria, cancer, and AIDS. In 2010, he founded the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing in Florida in order to scale up its marketing scheme, and to circumvent federal regulators in the U.S.
“Right away we start thinking, ‘Well, they’re going to hit us hard, we can’t start a business. Let’s do a church,’” Genesis II church co-founder Mark Grenon said in a 2020 interview with the We Are Change talk show. “Under the First Amendment in America, I can do this and no one can stop us.”
Federal regulators in the U.S. issued the first of many public warnings about “Miracle Mineral Solution” in 2010. Consuming it is the “same as drinking bleach,” the FDA cautioned again in 2019. “Product directions instruct consumers to mix the sodium chlorite solution with citric acid—such as lemon or lime juice .... before drinking," the agency said. “When the acid is added, the mixture becomes chlorine dioxide, a powerful bleaching agent.”
Undeterred, promoters of “Miracle Mineral Solution” targeted parents of autistic children through private Facebook groups and social media channels. Parents are encouraged to give their autistic children the chlorine dioxide solution orally, through enemas and in baths in order to “heal” them. (Autism is not a condition that can be cured.)
“They destroy kids’ lives,” said Amanda Seigler, who leads a support group for autistic parents and children in the U.S. After her son’s diagnosis, she looked online for help and found sites claiming autism is caused by a parasite that chlorine dioxide could kill. “Due to social media and the internet, these people are able to reach everybody and from every walk of life,” she said.
The pandemic offered promoters of bleach a new audience among people desperate to survive.
The face of the movement in Latin America is Andreas Kalcker, a self-described biophysics researcher from Germany, who was named an “archbishop” of the Genesis II Church in 2013. Fluent in English and Spanish, Kalcker is a charismatic speaker who promotes the “therapeutic” power of chlorine dioxide solution. He charges $575 per person to attend his “Kalcker Institute” and learn about “oxidative therapy,” and he gives online consultations for $50 per 15 minutes. In 2020, he was an honored guest at Bolivia’s Military School of Engineering.
While Kalcker markets himself as a doctor, his alleged Ph.D. comes from the Open University of Advanced Sciences, a Florida company that doesn’t have academic accreditation and advertises classes in supernatural topics like hypnosis, lucid dreams, and techniques for super-learning. (It’s not clear how to sign up for the classes.) After the company posted a letter on its website distancing itself from the Genesis II Church, Kalcker took down references to Open University of Advanced Sciences on his own website. Instead, he advertises an honorary degree from an online school in Mexico.
When we reached him over video, Kalcker was wearing a white medical coat and had lab equipment in the background. The conversation started out friendly, but he quickly accused us of being out to get him when we started questioning him about his credentials. He said his degree from the Open University of Advanced Sciences isn’t “relevant,” that chlorine dioxide had saved thousands of lives, and that VICE World News is to blame for “making so many people die.” Kalcker also maintains he recommends small doses that wouldn’t harm anyone.
“They try to hunt me down for 14 years, but do you think I care? I didn’t do anything wrong, but you will,” Kalcker said, before hanging up on us.
“They want to sterilize us”
The pro-bleach movement has made enormous inroads across Latin America. In Argentina, a popular TV anchor drank chlorine dioxide on live television, and a judge mandated that a hospital give a COVID patient chlorine dioxide intravenously—the patient still died. In Colombia, a well-known model/DJ promoted it on Instagram. Drinking bleach became a fad among the wealthy in Mexico, and mayors in Mexico and Ecuador began distributing it. In May, Peru’s congress voted to investigate whether drinking or injecting chlorine dioxide could cure COVID.
The anti-vax, pro-bleach disinformation network COMUSAV, which Kalcker helped found at the beginning of the pandemic, has gained more than 200,000 followers across its social media channels, from Facebook to Telegram, and opened chapters in 21 countries. COMUSAV peddles an assortment of conspiracy theories on social media, from the “genocidal” vaccine to the dangers of 5G. The group’s evangelists — many of whom advertise personal consultations—are a collection of homeopath “healers,” far-right activists, and actual doctors.
Their conspiracy narrative that the medical establishment is purposely hiding something in its condemnation of chlorine dioxide found particular resonance in Bolivia. Mistrust of Western medicine, said Soria, the Bolivian epidemiologist, goes back to a U.S. campaign in the 1960s to provide contraceptives across Bolivia’s rural indigenous regions. The idea was to lower the birthrate and, in doing so, address maternal and childhood mortality rates. Locals didn’t see it that way.
“People thought, ‘They want to sterilize us. They want to take over the country,’” Soria said. “That logic began to grow and grow, and the resistance to the health system remains today.”
Clever messaging that chlorine dioxide is outside the establishment has helped it avoid being perceived as a Western medicine, despite its chemical nature and Florida roots, Soria said. Instead, it’s been heralded as an alternative medicine, more in line with indigenous herbs, coca leaves, and eucalyptus, which for centuries have been used in Bolivia for medicinal purposes.
Col. Enrique Bustamante, who oversees the Military Academy of Engineering’s research and production of chlorine dioxide, even described chlorine dioxide as a “natural medicine” that’s similar to drinking tea.
Many would beg to differ.
A toxic irritant
In April, a federal grand jury in Miami indicted Grenon, co-founder and “archbishop” of the Genesis II church, and his three sons with “selling toxic bleach as a fake ‘miracle’ cure for Covid-19,” citing reports of “people requiring hospitalizations, developing life-threatening conditions, and even dying” after drinking their solution. Grenon hasn’t yet pleaded to the charges, but in an initial letter to the court, he said they “obey God rather than men.”
In Argentina, authorities are investigating Kalcker for selling a poisonous substance, following the death of a 5-year-old whose parents gave him chlorine dioxide. Kalcker told VICE World News he’s done nothing wrong and doesn’t care if he’s charged.
COVID misinformation on the internet remains rampant. Facebook clamped down on COMUSAV this year, after the group posted freely for months. The collective has since migrated to the messaging service Telegram, which doesn’t have a disinformation policy. To this day, videos of chlorine dioxide promoters proliferate on Facebook and Instagram.
Dr. Antonio Viruez, who works at a COVID intensive care unit in Bolivia’s Hospital del Norte, said COVID is hard enough to deal with without the added burden of chlorine dioxide intoxication.
“Chlorine dioxide is a very toxic irritant, sort of like gasoline,” Viruez told us. “When you administer chlorine dioxide intravenously, patients begin bleeding through their eyes and through their bladder.”
Of the five COVID patients he’s treated who’ve consumed chlorine dioxide, all five died, he said.
When VICE World News visited, he was treating a man who’d drunk a liter and a half of chlorine dioxide before entering the ICU. Viruez said the patient had delayed coming to the hospital in the belief that chlorine dioxide would save him, which made his condition worse. The man died two days later.
“We’re tired. I can’t deny it,” Viruez said. “Medicine is based on science, not myths.”