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Biriyani, Mattresses and Shirts: Advertisers Peddle Dubious COVID-19 Cures

Health and industry insiders say such claims, if taken seriously, can lead to dangerous consequences.
July 28, 2020, 4:20pm
covid 19 misleading advertising fake news
Photo for representational purpose, courtesy of Pexels

On March 19, a first information report with the police was registered against Amar Parekh, the owner of a mattress company called Arihant in the city of Bhiwandi, located in the outskirts of Mumbai. It was the first days of the COVID-19 outbreak in India, but Parekh had already taken out an advertisement in a regional Gujarati newspaper promoting his mattresses “that can cure coronavirus.”

Bhiwandi’s deputy commissioner of police Rajkumar Shinde told news outlet Hindustan Times that the shop owner “confessed” to not having any scientific and medical proof backing the claim. The advertisement has since been taken down. Parekh acknowledged the incident to VICE News, but refused to comment further. 

Similar claims about products—ranging from “immunity boosters,” “killing” the novel  coronavirus, and to being “anti-virus”—are all over social media, newspapers and the online space in India. 

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory industry body, told VICE News that since April 2020, they have seen an uptick in claims and looked into roughly 500 of them related to the prevention and cure of COVID-19. The ASCI asked four advertisers to withdraw their claims until investigations were complete; the identity of these brands were not released to the public.

“Our concern is that over-the-top, unsubstantiated claims can cause public harm,” said Shweta Purandare, ASCI’s secretary general. 

The trend mirrors the persistent messaging by Indian political leaders that Ayurveda—a traditional medicine system that has no scientific proof—can cure the novel coronavirus. 

In one claim, the Indian government’s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) was called out for promoting Arsenicum Album 30, a homeopathic drug, for boosting immunity against COVID-19. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi widely recommended Ayurveda to ward off the virus, and continues to do so even now. News reports state that the Indian government’s Indian Council of Medical Research has approved at least 19 Ayurvedic combinations, including cow-urine pills and turmeric, for clinical trials. 

“Since the government health bodies or local politicians do not shy away from elaborate claims, nor do they emphasise on ethical research standards or punish those who make such claims, these businesses have no fear of fraudulent marketing,” Sumaiya Shaikh, a neuroscientist and founding-editor of fake news-busting website Alt News Science, told VICE News. 

In the latest— and viral—incident, Arjun Ram Meghwal, the Indian Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, claimed that a brand of papad, an Indian savoury, helps build antibodies against COVID-19. 

ASCI’s Purandare said that the explicit or implicit claim of prevention or cure of COVID-19 would be deemed misleading, while general claims about helping maintain the body's immunity, “so long as they are substantiated,” are fine.

Zodiac Clothing is currently advertising an “anti-viral shirt” that uses “HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03 technology”. Fashion blogs and media report a rampant use of this Swiss textile technology by international as well as regional Indian clothing brands. This fabric claims to be effective “99.99 percent” within 30 minutes when it comes into contact with the novel coronavirus. 

Heiq has a disclaimer on their website stating that such claims “are not permitted in the USA” and require pesticidal device registration, while in the European Union, it is subject to evaluation by their regulatory bodies. 

ASCI, while admitting to currently examining such claims, refused comment on individual cases. “Even if a product can prove to have properties in its fabric to kill the virus, implying that it would ‘protect’ from Corona gives a false sense of safety,” said Purandare. “Hence it is misleading by implication.”

Government officials say that there are no guidelines from the Indian ministries of Health and Textiles to prove the efficacy of these claims. 

“There is no standard product in the name of ‘anti-microbial’ or ‘anti-viral’ textiles. Various manufacturers have their own versions based either on their own marketing initiatives or on customer requirements,” a government official who did not want to be named, told The Hindu

An official told The Hindu that antimicrobial fabrics can potentially slow down the growth of microbes to a certain extent, but not stop it completely. “The World Health Organisation also does not recognise such fabric,” they said.

In their statement to VICE News, Zodiac stood by the “anti-viral” technology but maintained that it is “not a cure nor does it guarantee a person wearing a Securo shirt will not get infected.”

D’Decor Home Fabrics, a Mumbai-based producer of curtain and upholstery fabrics, recently launched an “anti viral range” that uses the Heiq Viroblock technology. The brand, which has Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan and wife Gauri as brand ambassadors, does not explicitly mention COVID-19. It does, however, state that their fabric “destroys most known disease spreading viruses and bacteria” and controls transmission. 

Australian company Global Speciality Chemicals recently tied up with prominent Indian textile manufacturer Siyaram Silk Mills to develop a clothing line with their HealthGuard products. The company claims that HealthGuard, an “innovative disease prevention” solution, kills the “ability of the virus to be infectious” within an hour. 

Christopher Harvey, president of HealthGuard, told Australian media outlet SBS that their anti-virus technology is a “golden opportunity” for many clothing brands. 

Karthik Srinivasan, an Indian branding and communications consultant, told VICE News that such claims are “outlandish and laughable”. 

“More than science, brands use data to back such claims,” said Srinivasan, adding that many companies use a survey of a “very limited” sample set to base their claims. 

“So, if a tea claims to build immunity, it should have some semblance of logic, on why the claim is being made. If [marketers] say, our tea has turmeric and tulsi in it, then it is up to buyers to learn if turmeric and tulsi aid in improving immunity and then try that product,” Srinivasan said. 

 Shaikh added that the trend demonstrates that small to large businesses are “trying to exploit this pandemic adversity.”

 “Little do they care about the repercussions of marketing their products,” she said. “Their focus is merely increasing the profit margins to make up for the last five months of the lockdown.”

 Many such claims are riding on the reputation—deeply steeped in Indian society but often not scientifically proven—of Ayurveda. 

An Indian restaurant Biryani Blues introduced “Supermeals” that contain turmeric, an “immunity booster”. The restaurant’s owner Raymond Andrews told Economic Times that the spice is “known to be natural immunity boosters” and that there are “no other unsubstantiated claims”

Mother Dairy Fruit and Vegetable Private Ltd, introduced haldi—turmeric—milk to its products line.

In its statement, Mother Dairy said that the product is the latest addition to “trending” immunity-boosting health items, and follows AYUSH recommendations to address “these tough times”. 

Turmeric, often used in Ayurvedic concoctions and a common ingredient in Indian cuisine, is marketed for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and potential anti-cancer properties. Researchers say there isn’t enough and solid scientific evidence to rate turmeric’s medical benefits. 

ASCI said that it is working with the AYUSH ministry to flag misleading claims on COVID-19 drugs, as well as the Indian government’s Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, to verify food claims. 

India’s Consumer Protection Act 2019, which addresses and penalises misleading claims, came into force on July 20. ASCI told VICE News that the law “heralds a new age of consumer protection” by giving it “real teeth”. 

Health and industry experts say such advertisements, if taken seriously, could spell danger of “life-or-death proportions”. 

“There isn't a shred of evidence in these foods or clothing,” said Shaikh. “They only increase false securities. It is as good as taking nothing for the infection.”

India, third on the list of countries when it comes to total COVID-19 cases, has 496,988 active COVID-19 cases and recorded 33,425 deaths as of July 28. 

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