Alternative Medicine Exploits Coronavirus Fears

Alternative medicine has been quick to capitalize on the public’s fear of coronavirus. They offer an array of bogus treatments.

The news is full of alarming reports about the new coronavirus that originated in China and is spreading throughout the world. There is no treatment other than supportive measures, and there is no vaccine to prevent it. Scientists don’t yet know much about it, although they are already working on a vaccine. It is only natural that the public is worried about it, even though it would make far more sense to worry about influenza, which is causing far more infections and deaths and for which we have treatments and a vaccine. Fears increased when it was announced that it can be transmitted from person to person. We see pictures of empty streets in China and hear of stranded travelers. The death toll keeps rising and is announced on the news on a daily basis.

I was just thinking it wouldn’t be long before CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) stepped in to allay fears by offering bogus remedies, and sure enough, I started seeing them everywhere.

Homeopathy Safe Medicine announced:

  • So if you are a homeopathy user you don’t need to wear a face mask (or even goggles), and certainly not a white space suit in fear. Just take your usual influenza remedy, and have them at hand.
  • If you are not a homeopathy user yet it is exactly the right time to join us, and begin living life normally again.

A practitioner of siddha medicine in Tamil Nadu claimed to have formulated an herbal medicine to cure coronavirus in 24-40 hours. He even offered to travel to Wuhan to offer his cure to the Chinese.

Promoters of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory urged their fans to ward off the illness with bleach (Miracle Mineral Solution or MMS). Jordan Sather said he would have to get home and “MMS the whole state…MMS the shit out of everything.”

China’s National Health Commission recommends traditional Chinese medicine, with individualized remedies based on whether the patient is categorized as damp, hot, toxic, or bruised.

Simply Health lists 14 natural methods to treat coronavirus, including foods, acetaminophen, honey, heating pads or cold packs, steamy showers, hydration with hot liquids, gargling, bundling up, and resting. They offer the encouraging but false information that coronavirus is just like a cold: it causes the same symptoms and will disappear from the body in the same amount of time. They must not be reading the headlines.

The Herbal Prepper Academy lists herbs and essential oils to fight coronaviruses. The 37 herbs include cayenne, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, horseradish, kudzu, Dyers Woad, gingko biloba, and many more. Six essential oils that “assist the respiratory system” are listed: thyme, oregano, eucalyptus, rosemary, lavender, and sage. They comment that some are better for children and others are better for adults “who can handle a more intense essential oil.” They warn not to ingest, but to take through inhalation only.

An article in The Washington Post reported that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are scrambling to stop misinformation about coronavirus.

Carahealth advised that constituents in herbs exhibit a diverse array of anti-viral, virostatic, immune enhancing, and anti-influenza activities and may present a solution. They recommend echinacea, barberry, astragalus, elderberry, and turmeric. They also recommend Vitamin D as an alternative flu prophylactic.

An article on ScienceAlert reported that India’s government was recommending homeopathy for coronavirus prevention (specifically, Arsenicum album 30 daily for 3 days) and asked “What’s the harm?” They commented that India’s tips might be the second least effective advice offered, after the Dalai Lama’s advice to chant a mantra as protection.

I’m sure there are many more examples out there, but I was too discouraged at this point to keep googling. I suppose I shouldn’t object to people taking bogus remedies if it makes them worry less, since science doesn’t yet have anything effective to offer, and reassurance can make people feel better. But I certainly can’t condone the suggestions for things known to be harmful like MMS. And there is always the danger that people who accept this kind of CAMadvice today may go on to use other bogus remedies tomorrow and may die unnecessarily from a life-threatening illness that could have been effectively treated with mainstream science-based methods.

Bottom line: question random advice; ask for evidence.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.