Scams and Hoaxes Are Thriving in the COVID-19 Pandemic

"Wellness" peddlers and start-up goons are rushing to fill the vacuum created by a messy government, a privatized healthcare system, and rising anxiety about coronavirus.
March 27, 2020, 2:21pm
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Photo by Roman Larin via Getty Images

There’s no plainer evidence of the systematic failure of the American government and American healthcare system to handle the COVID-19 pandemic than the story of a man in Arizona who died after consuming fish tank cleaner that he and his wife mistook for a so-called “coronavirus cure,” praised days before by President Donald Trump.

It could be easy to mock this kind of behavior as a deadly form of ignorance. But the truth is, when it comes to COVID-19, we’re all ignorant.

There has been a demonstrated knowledge vacuum when it comes to treatments for coronavirus; people are panicked, and the lack of solid guidance from political leaders plus distrust of our terrible, byzantine health care system that wellness companies continue to stoke has led to a toxic mix of misinformation.

This climate allows unlicensed hacks to publish dangerous fringe ideas, like dermatologist Doug Perednia's “coronavirus party” concept, where participants infect each other to speed up herd immunity, something that actual experts have said absolutely wouldn't work. Amazon had to step in and stop “authors” selling sketchy e-books and falsely claiming COVID-19 knowledge with titles like Coronavirus Disease: A Practical Guide for Preparation and Protection and Facts, Myths and Everything in Between… All You Need to Know About the 2020 Pandemic. And academics and journalists banded together to debunk chain texts instructing people to “hold their breath for 10 seconds” to test for the “shortness of breath” symptom that often indicates coronavirus—something no medical professional or body has validated—or to drink scalding water to ward off the virus, another rumor with zero medical backing.

This is how ineffective folk cures like the healing crystals Spencer Pratt advertised on Instagram flourish; racist conspiracy theories explode on Reddit; and price gougers can justify jacking up the cost of hand sanitizer.

The FDA has had to crack down on wellness companies advertising so-called cures for the coronavirus earlier this month, including known scammy products like essential oils and colloidal silver, according to a statement from the regulatory body. But the FDA mostly only regulates reactively, as in the case of those scammy products. Products classified as supplements only have to meet a minimum of safety before they go on the market, and it’s not until products start to actively harm people that the FDA will swoop in. Unfortunately, this leaves a huge gap for wellness companies to try and capitalize on coronavirus fears and misinformation.

Startups like Nurx, a company best known for prescribing birth control through telemedicine, briefly tried to jump into the testing void through “at-home testing and screening” self-swabbing or saliva sampling, two offerings that the FDA had to quickly jump in and clarified that are not yet approved for use by the general public. Several companies discontinued kit sales, while one startup told the New York Times it was “was moving to provide its kits… to health care providers and hospitals,” rather than individuals.

But the FDA can’t get a hold on everyone attempting to cash in on the moment. As VICE previously wrote, brands have offered immune-boosting supplements as potential protection from COVID-19, despite the fact that they’ve never actually proven to be effective.

Even scientists still don’t know exactly how it spreads, and there is no established cure—only treatment regimens that have met with mixed success, like the ones Trump and others have irresponsibly touted. And due to a significant, ongoing testing shortage for anyone who isn’t on Raya, the current scope of the issue in the U.S. remains unclear. We have no idea how many Americans are currently infected with COVID-19, how many have already recovered, and how many are asymptomatically spreading it because they believe they’re healthy (or because they just don’t have a choice).

Despite all the noise, the situation is far from hopeless. Even claims about chloroquine aren’t completely baseless—there is evidence that its medicinal form, it can be a part of an effective COVID-19 treatment regimen. In fact, there are several medicinal options that have proven effective in treating patients with COVID-19. But there are huge caveats: Scientists essentially working with anecdotal evidence at this point, not robust clinical trials typically needed to greenlight medical advances, and the drugs aren't yet actually approved.

Researchers are willing to skip a few steps like animal testing when it comes to combating the spread of the novel coronavirus (and developing a vaccine), but time is still necessary to make sure these new treatment options don’t harm more than they help. Until then, we’ll be stuck wading in the sea of misinformation.

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