Covid-19: A Field Day for Scams and Misinformation

Our world has been disrupted due to legitimate fears about COVID-19. People are afraid, and unscrupulous and/or misinformed people have been quick to exploit those fears. 

The FTC has offered advice for consumers to help them avoid coronavirus scammers. On March 19 they published Part 2, and the FTC and FDA have sent out warning letters to these companies:

  • Vital Silver
  • Aromatherapy Ltd.
  • N-ergetics
  • GuruNanda, LLC
  • Vivify Holistic Clinic
  • Herbal Amy LLC
  • The Jim Bakker Show

They solicit complaints from customers, and this page has an Alert button with a link to facilitate complaints relating to COVID-19.

Stephen Barrett’s Consumer Health Digest #20-10 lists lawsuits filed against Jim Bakker, Alex Jones, and others for marketing fraudulent products claimed to prevent or cure the disease. It also lists commentaries about COVID-19 misinformation and quackery. That list features my article on how alternative medicine has exploited coronavirus fears.  Another commentary from the Science-Based Medicine blog is Jann Bellamy’s article on chiropractors who falsely claim they can protect patients from the virus. 

I was proud to see that my article headed the list, appearing on February 4, a month before the rest. In it, I addressed:

And I mentioned that there were many more, but I couldn’t hope to provide a comprehensive list of them all. I also mentioned social media’s efforts to combat coronavirus misinformation.

Any list would be out of date before it could be published. There’s no need to debunk these claims or to explain why they are wrong. That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. For each of these claims, anyone can observe that they offer no real evidence. To dismiss them, all we need to do is simply remember that no treatment has yet been adequately studied for its effectiveness and safety for prevention or treatment of COVID-19.

Much has happened since my February 4 article. A pandemic was declared. Italy is on lockdown, with more cases than China. Other countries are following suit. Governments everywhere are instituting measures to slow the spread. Everyone has been impacted. I can’t eat out, get library books, or even get a haircut.  Fortunately I can still write.

Supplement sales have increased. Idiocy abounds. In fact, a new word has been proposed,  covidiot,  referring to those who ignore social distancing protocols or who deprive others of needed supplies by hoarding and panic buying. Every day someone makes a new claim about another alleged remedy. I just read that an Indian politician was arrested for organizing a cow urine drinking party. It’s impossible to keep up with all of these unsupported claims. 

Science marches on inexorably, perhaps more slowly than we would like but sometimes more quickly than we could have hoped. We already know the COVID-19 genome. There are already several vaccines and tests in the pipeline, and numerous clinical trials have begun to evaluate new and old drugs. Several promising candidates have been identified, such as chloroquine and remdesivir: and some doctors are already giving them to patients without waiting for actual evidence, which may turn out to be a big mistake as evidence of harm emerges. China was recommending chloroquine but has backed off because apparently the lethal dose is barely twice the therapeutic dose. People have been hospitalized in Nigeria with chloroquine poisoning. Caution is in order. 

Skeptics can evaluate new claims for themselves as they pop up. It’s easy enough to find out who is making the claim, what their track record is, and what evidence they have. We can ask whether anyone has spoken out in disagreement, and what the experts are saying. We know we should get our information from reliable sources like Dr. Anthony Fauci (who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease) and not from ignorant celebrities and politicians with an agenda. And it’s always wise to withhold judgment after initial favorable reports and wait for confirmation.

I can’t help but wonder if the widespread toilet paper shortages are a response to the proliferation of bullshit. 

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.

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