COVID-19

How Snake-Oil Salesmen are Cashing in on Coronavirus Panic in Australia

People are buying into claims that drinking unregulated, potentially harmful substances—including dissolved silver and a bleaching chemical—will protect them from COVID-19. VICE investigates the rising trend, and the people profiting from it.
April 17, 2020, 1:30am
mms solution

UPDATE, 13/5/20: This article has been updated to include recent developments and broadening coverage that has come to light since we broke the story. The main text has not been edited.

It was mid-January when Lucas started feeling the symptoms he’d been hearing about in the news: fever; difficulty breathing; a dry, persistent cough. China had just reported its first death from an as-yet-unnamed novel coronavirus, and those experiencing the telltale signs in other countries were being urged to contact a GP as soon as possible.

But Lucas, a self-proclaimed skeptic on the efficacy of modern medicine, refused.

“I was sick on and off for almost six weeks,” he tells VICE via Facebook messenger. “It could very well have been the coronavirus—I have no idea. But [taking] MMS was a desperate attempt at getting better.”

The substance Lucas is referring to—MMS, or “Miracle Mineral Solution”—has long been touted as a panacea for all kinds of illnesses, from colds and flus through to diabetes, malaria and cancer. Advocates claim the substance can be ingested as an antiviral, a way to reverse vaccinations or—most controversially—as a “cure” for autism.

Health authorities have roundly rebuked these claims, and sought to clamp down on the advertising and sale of related products. But Lucas already had the main ingredients lying around the house—distilled water, citric acid and the disinfectant sodium chlorite: a chemical compound primarily used in the process of bleaching paper. In the middle of March, using instructions he found online, he concocted a homemade batch of MMS and swallowed his first dose.

“The next day I had no fever, my lungs began to clear up, and progressively I recovered,” he says. “It took roughly two weeks to make a full recovery, and I was taking quarter doses of MMS every day during that time. Now I take it every other day: a full dose, as a preventative. Because if I do ever get COVID-19, I don't know if I'd survive it.”

Lucas’ attempt to inoculate himself against the global pandemic flies in the face of conventional health advice. But it also echoes a worrying trend that has taken shape in Australia over recent weeks and months, as coronavirus panic spreads and more people turn towards alternative and unregulated medicines.

In the second half of March, worldwide Google searches for the term “home cure” were almost 25 percent higher than any other period over the past five years. Searches for the topic “miracle mineral supplement”—an alternative name for MMS—experienced a similar spike, while searches for another contentious remedy known as “silver colloid” saw a sharp and consistent uptick from around mid-February.

Silver colloid, or "colloidal silver", is the same substance that saw American televangelist Jim Bakker sued by the state of Missouri in early March for falsely promising that it "can cure, eliminate, kill or deactivate coronavirus”. Days later, Alex Jones—the controversial radio show host and far-right conspiracy theorist—was issued a cease-and-desist by the New York State attorney general for claiming a brand of toothpaste containing nanosilver “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”

The US Food & Drug Administration [FDA] maintains that silver colloid “is not safe or effective for treating any disease or condition”, while the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns that its use “can cause serious side effects”. The most infamous of these is a condition known as argyria, when silver accumulates in the body and the skin turns a permanent shade of blue. Although more extreme cases of argyria are associated with prolonged use, the minimum blood silver levels consistent with the condition are not currently known.

Overwhelmingly, the bulk of worldwide Google searches for “silver colloid” in recent months have come out of Australia—mainly Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales, the states with the biggest outbreaks of COVID-19. And a large amount of the silver colloid products being bought and sold around the country can be traced back to a company called Silver Health: a privately held business operating out of a small warehouse in Victoria.

“I have never worked so hard in my life,” Ian Erskine, the founder of Silver Health, says over the phone. “I've put out a year's work in the last two-and-half, three weeks. Just with coronavirus, people know that it [silver colloid] is an antiviral. And they're wanting to make sure they don't come down with it [COVID-19]. There’s as much silver colloid going out at the moment as there is hand sanitiser.”

Ian’s been selling silver colloid products for 13 years (he makes a point of avoiding the term “colloidal silver”, claiming it's too often used to refer to homeopathic knockoffs). He has stockists all around Australia, mostly naturopaths and health food stores, and in the average week estimates that he might move a few hundred litres of solution. In the current climate, he says he’s selling “thousands of litres a week”.

“People have been asking me ‘will it cure coronavirus?’ and I can't tell them it does,” he says. “I just say look, we make no claims, but if it's antiviral and this coronavirus is a virus, make your own assumption. It's better than having a milkshake.”

Anecdotally, there’s further evidence that interest in silver colloid is seeing an upturn. VICE called a number of the stockists around Australia that sell Silver Health’s products, and 17 out of 20 reported a significant surge in silver colloid sales since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many stores had completely sold out of their stock; one reported selling “shitloads”, while another claimed that “people have cottoned on to the whole colloidal silver thing now.” A third vendor confirmed “some people use it instead of hand sanitiser, and others drink it—a teaspoon a day.”

On the homepage of Silver Health’s website, a disclaimer recently stated that “due to high demand we are concentrating on providing the Silver Colloid and Hand Sanitisers to our customers. These will be the only available products at the moment.” Even Ian admits he’s been taking it daily, and says “all my staff take it every day or they don't come to work. I don't want them giving the coronavirus to everybody.”

He won’t say exactly where he gets his substances or who makes the batches that he sells on to everyday consumers—revealing only that they’re imported from a large-scale manufacturer in Germany—but he insists they don’t contain more than the “recommended” potency of 30 parts per million (ppm) silver nanoparticles. Another product being sold on his website, which has a strength of 600ppm, is allegedly meant for a one-litre batch of solution.

silver colloid

A sample of Silver Health's 'True Silver Colloid' solution, obtained over-the-counter at a Melbourne naturopath. The front of the bottle (L) states that 'Silver Health makes no claims as to medical benefits', while the back of the bottle (R) lists the many medical conditions for which it has previously been used.

“If you make [silver colloid solution] to about 250 parts per million, and then drink a litre or two of it a day, there's nothing surer than you will turn blue,” Ian says when asked about the risk of argyria. “The thing that's wrong with turning blue is that you look blue—and that's it. It's only cosmetic. It doesn't do you any good, but it doesn't do you any harm either. Unless you don't like being blue.”

When asked about the number of scientific papers and studies pointing to other, more harmful side effects of silver colloid—ranging from kidney damage and liver complications through to neurological deficits and seizures—Ian claims not to have seen any of them.

“That could well be the case—you ask a dozen professionals a question and you'll get 13 different answers,” he says. “I don't know. If I was a medical expert I wouldn't be doing this, I'd be retired on the beach.”

VICE spoke to a number of medical experts about the safety of ingesting silver nanoparticles, after obtaining a sample of one of Silver Health’s most commonly sold solutions. While several suggested the 30ppm substance was “unlikely” to cause harm if used sparingly and in small doses, none of them would recommend doing so, and almost all agreed there isn’t enough evidence to say with any certainty that it’s safe.

Josef Havel, a chemistry professor at the Czech Republic’s Masaryk University, has been studying the effects of silver nanoparticles on the human body and the environment for more than a decade, and still finds it difficult to say what the actual effects of these kinds of products might be. In 2008 he published a research paper stating that ingestion of colloidal silver “[has] been linked with neurological problems, kidney damage, stomach upset, headache, fatigue and skin irritation”—findings that have been echoed in multiple other studies.

Speaking to VICE over email, Dr Havel said “no serious person would recommend [silver colloid]. It is generally toxic.” When asked about the Silver Health sample specifically, he said “this colloidal suspension is most probably not harmful—at least when digested in a small volume and once. But who knows. I would never recommend doing that, or to use it orally. Only if it is prescribed by a medical doctor. Otherwise never do that; it can be hazardous.”

The effects of MMS are similarly ambiguous. None of the medical professionals VICE spoke to had ever seen such products, but all voiced concern when they were made aware of the ingredients and the fact that people were ingesting them orally. Experts have compared it to drinking bleach, warning that it can cause severe vomiting, diarrhoea, and acute liver failure, and in the five years leading up to 2014 at least 10 people in Victoria had been poisoned by the substance—four of whom had to be hospitalised. Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) later expressed concern that “some people may be using MMS to treat illnesses or for other therapeutic purposes”, warning that using the substance in this way “may have toxic effects.”

mms

A sample of 'Miracle Mineral Solution', purchased online from Queensland-based distributor MMS Australia. The blue bottle contains 4 percent hydrochloric acid in demineralised water. The green bottle contains 22.4 percent sodium chlorite.

When VICE approached the TGA for comment on the increasingly popular sale of these products, particularly as remedies for COVID-19, a spokesperson for the Australian Government’s Department of Health responded stating that “it is an offence to sell MMS or silver colloid claiming it is a medical treatment, cure or prevention of serious diseases.”

But the legislation is easy to circumvent. Both Silver Health and MMS Australia—the local distributor of Miracle Mineral Solution—are careful not to make any medicinal claims about their products, even while acknowledging that a large bulk of their business is dependent on people using them for that very purpose. “I think it's just word of mouth,” Ian says when asked where customers heard about these alleged medicinal benefits. “Health nuts and preppers all know about silver… [and] they all have half a dozen friends, so word gets around.”

Word getting around—whether through friends, blogs, or Facebook groups—doesn’t fall under the TGA’s remit. As long as a manufacturer makes no therapeutic claims, they’re not in breach of TGA guidelines and are free to sell their products without consequence. Of course, in the age of the Internet, fake news and the so-called “epidemic of misinformation”, this doesn’t do much to curtail the rising popularity of spurious home remedies.

READ: Hairdryers, Incense, and Garlic Water: Facebook Is Still Letting People Spread Fake Coronavirus ‘Cures’

Other suppliers are openly flouting the rules and promoting the alleged medicinal benefits of their products in plain view. FulHealth Industries, a company operating out of NSW, sells a “high purity” silver colloid solution alongside claims that it “acts as an antiviral” and is “safe for human consumption”. A freedom of information document seen by VICE reveals that in 2003 FulHealth Industries asked the TGA to exclude silver colloid products from regulation—a request that was declined on the basis of public health and safety. Seventeen years later, more than a dozen online stores are still selling these products and making unsubstantiated claims about their therapeutic benefits.

The TGA is reportedly aware that “the current pandemic has seen some people take advantage of the heightened vulnerability of consumers”, and has issued a statement warning people to be vigilant towards “false and misleading advertising”. But the message doesn’t appear to be getting through. VICE can confirm that in online chat rooms, forums, and public and private Facebook groups, people are actively seeking and recommending potentially harmful alternative medicines as a way to treat COVID-19.

For Lucas, the flu-like symptoms he’d been wrestling with for weeks turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now he’s a regular user of the so-called “Miracle Solution”, and shows no intentions of stopping anytime soon.

“I'm not qualified to say whether MMS would work against COVID-19, but I think it could, since it’s a strain of coronavirus,” he says. “Others have claimed that it works against coronaviruses—I haven't been using it long [enough] to make that claim ... But I’m more of a believer every day.”

UPDATE, 13/5/20, 7:50PM: Since publication the Therapeutic Goods Administration has issued 12 infringement notices totalling $151,200 to MMS Australia for alleged unlawful advertising of Miracle Mineral Solution. The infringements referred to testimonials from users, which were available online, as well as recent claims by the company that MMS could be used to treat COVID-19.

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