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Japanese Drug Stores Are Running Out of a Type of Mouthwash After a Governor Claimed It Could Fight COVID-19

Medical experts have questioned his claims, citing a lack of scientific evidence.
05 August 2020, 10:38am
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For illustrative purposes only. Photo: Oleg Magni from Pexels

As the world races to find a vaccine to end the COVID-19 pandemic, people continue to cling onto home remedies with even the slightest chance of protecting them from the coronavirus. In Japan, some people have turned to a kind of mouthwash after a governor said it could prevent infections.

Citing a new study, Osaka Governor Yoshimura Hirofumi said in a press briefing on July 4 that gargling the oral antiseptic povidone-iodine could help kill the virus in the mouth. Povidone-iodine is sold under several brand names and is commonly referred to as betadine.

“[It’s] worth giving a try,” Yoshimura said, “everyone can buy and it doesn’t do any harm.”

This led to people buying the gargle medicine, that is now out of stock in some drug stores.

“Gargle medicine sold out so quickly. This is quite traumatising,” one netizen tweeted.

The post includes a photo of an empty store shelf with a note that says: “Due to Governor Yoshimura’s words, we have unfortunately run out of gargle medicine stocks. It is unclear when we will have them restocked. Sorry for the inconvenience caused.”

Another user said that all the gargle medicine was gone when they visited their neighbourhood drug store.

“They told me that it got sold out this afternoon, and it’s not clear when they’re going to restock. I want people to stop.”

Prices of the mouth wash have gone up on popular Japanese marketplace apps like Mercari, where it is sold for up to 5,000 yen ($47.27), despite a ban on reselling medicinal products, Yahoo News reported.

The trend has led the World Health Organization’s centre in Kobe to release a statement about the effectiveness of the antiseptic in COVID-19 prevention.

“There is no scientific evidence that gargle medicine can prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” it said.

According to The Sankei News, the study Yoshimura cited was conducted by Osaka’s Habiki Medical Center and involved a group of 41 people with mild symptoms. They were separated into two groups, one which gargled diluted povidone-iodine four times a day, and another that only gargled water. After four days, results showed that only 9.5 percent of people tested positive for COVID-19 in the group that gargled the mouthwash, while 40 percent tested positive in the group that used water.

While several other studies have found that povidone-iodine could kill the virus that causes COVID-19, experts are now criticizing the governor for claiming that gargling the oral antiseptic could prevent infection, without proper medical evidence.

“Medicine which includes iodine should be avoided by pregnant women and people with thyroid disorders. Also, no one should use it excessively,” Imamura Akifumi, an infectious disease doctor said.

“Using tap water to gargle is enough,” pharmacist Kojima Yushi, said. “Some people who have used gargle medicine for years have faced thyroid dysfunctions, so please do not drink it by accident.”

He also noted that hand washing is still more effective in preventing the spread of germs.

Yoshimura has since addressed the backlash, clarifying that the claims he cited have not been proven.

“To be clear, gargle medicine does not have a clear COVID-19 prevention effect. We’re still working on studies on preventing existing cases from worsening,” he said in a tweet on August 5.

“What we found is that the amount of coronavirus in the saliva decreased, and made it faster for people to have negative results.”

He also advised people to gargle before a swab test “to avoid the virus from worsening.”

Some medical experts have advised against this. “If you use it prior to the swab test, the detection sensitivity may decrease, so please be careful,” Imamura said in his tweet.

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