You can’t blame anyone for feeling nervous. As of Friday afternoon, the New York Times had documented at least 1,875 active cases of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, in the U.S., and 41 people are known to have died. Though the deaths have predominantly occurred in elderly patients, and it’s still unclear exactly how much more dangerous than the regular flu COVID-19 really is, the danger is credible enough to stoke widespread anxiety. Price-gougers are selling hand sanitizer on eBay. There aren’t enough tests available for patients with symptoms, and Donald Trump insists on Twitter that nothing is really wrong at all. With so much of COVID-19 a mystery to the average person, and with the gaps in America’s social safety more painfully apparent than usual, it’s no wonder, perhaps, that some people have turned to alternative medicine.
In response to the pandemic, some consumers are turning to homeopathy, essential oils, and other forms of alternative medicine and home cures to either prevent COVID-19, or to treat it. Others are raking in profit off the anxieties of the public. The problem has become so significant that the World Health Organization now addresses a few choice urban legends on its official website for COVID-19. Garlic might taste good, but alas, consuming it won’t prevent you from getting sick. Neither will spraying your body with chlorine. WHO says nothing about the benefits of drinking bleach, as suggested by QAnon cultists, but it’s safe to say that doesn’t work, either.
Even without the looming threat of pandemic, pseudoscientific cures can pose a real threat to the public. No scientific evidence supports the claim that homeopathy has curative properties, for example, and relying on unproven treatments without the assistance of conventional medicine can put a person’s health at risk. Some popular treatments, like colloidal silver, can actually be dangerous if consumed in enough quantities. Nevertheless, alternative medicine is a big market in the U.S. Americans spent $30 billion on alternative medicine in 2012; by the time COVID-19 appeared, people were already primed to trust dubious cures.
Unfortunately for an anxious nation, anyone who says they have a cure or even a proven preventative treatment for COVID-19 is a charlatan. Take Jim Bakker. Bakker, who once formed one-half of a famed televangelism duo with his late wife, Tammy Faye, recently provoked the ire of the New York State Attorney General for promoting dubious COVID-19 treatments. The incident is in keeping with Bakker’s recent history. After serving four years in federal prison on charges of fraud, he got into the prepper business. He’s been selling buckets of food slop on his television show for years, presumably so he can profit from the tortured fantasies of people who long to rule an irradiated post-apocalyptic hellscape. With that audience in mind, Bakker filmed a segment hawking doses of Silver Solution, which allegedly contains “nano-silver,” as a potential cure for COVID-19. “It hasn’t been tested on this strain of the coronavirus, but it’s been tested on other strains of the coronavirus, and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours. Totally eliminates it, kills it, deactivates it and then it boosts your immune system,” a Bakker guest said on air. (Bakker sells the solution on his website, as the Washington Post reported last week.)
In response to his efforts, Letitia James, the state attorney general for New York, sent Bakker a cease-and-desist letter. Nevertheless, representatives for Bakker insisted to the Post that Silver Solution really does work. (It doesn’t.) Days later, the state of Missouri announced that it was suing Bakker for inflating the healing properties of his treatment.
Bakker may be the only person facing legal action for selling unproven cures. But he’s far from alone in his reliance on pseudoscience. Beauty influencer Michelle Phan recently promoted “antiviral essential oils” — again, not a real thing — as a treatment for COVID-19 on her Instagram account. Revelist reported last month that Phan initially offered an apology of sorts after Dr. Sandra Lee, better known to many online types as Dr. Pimple Popper, challenged the influencer’s scientific skepticism. But Phan later doubled down on her claims in a series of Instagram stories, which presents a problem. Phan has 2 million followers on Instagram, almost 900,000 followers on Twitter, and her own line of cosmetics. Her views might not have scientific backing, but they do have influence.
The same is true for Gwyneth Paltrow, the world-famous actress turned purveyor of quack medicine. Her company, Goop, is known for Yoni eggs and the promotion of potentially dangerous treatments like colonic irrigation (the process is as unpleasant as it sounds), also addresses COVID-19 on its website. Some of its advice is perfectly legitimate: Wash your hands! Disinfect your filthy phone! Get vaccinated, which prevents other potentially illnesses if not COVID-19. But this being Goop, the page also highlights entries on the flu-prevention properties of elderberry chew (scientifically, there are none) and an interview with a “holistic practitioner” about what to do to prevent colds and flu. Among her recommendations: the Goop Wellness Balls in the Air vitamin regimen, which at best offers no measurable health benefit and at worst, makes the unlucky consumer smell really bad.
If vitamins aren’t your jam, then Beni Johnson, the influential senior pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, recommends oil of oregano as a COVID-19 cure.
Johnson and Bethel Church previously made headlines last year, after they held a series of worship services to pray for the physical resurrection of a dead child. At the time, representatives for the church told the Washington Post that the congregation “believes in the accounts of healing and physical resurrection found in the Bible (Matthew 10:8), and that the miracles they portray are possible today,” but grief can’t raise a child from the dead, and oil of oregano can’t cure COVID-19. Nothing can, at least not right now.
But for some people, a pandemic is a business opportunity as well as a public-health crisis. On her popular Instagram account, Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon advertised her own products to fearful browsers:
Bacon’s “planet-based alchemy” sounds exciting, but her herbal blends have no proven medicinal qualities. The regime she outlines on her Instagram post is pricey, too: An order of Power Dust will set you back $38. The SuperYou supplement, which contains Shatavari root extract and Ashwagandha root and leaf extract, among other items, is $49. In a similar fashion, multilevel marketing companies like doTerra and YoungLiving, which specialize in essential oils and exaggerate their medical benefits, stand to profit mightily from a frightened public. So do individual homeopaths and corporations like Boiron USA, which sells homeopathic remedies like Oscillococcinum in chains like Wegmans and Whole Foods Market.
Edzard Ernst, a physician and retired professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, told Intelligencer in an interview that as COVID-19 became a widespread crisis, homeopaths “came out in force claiming that their number one remedy, ‘Oscillococcinum’ for flu, should also be used for the new virus.” But it doesn’t have any real medical purpose, he explained. “This remedy consists of duck heart and liver diluted at a ratio of 1:10 400, which corresponds not even to one molecule from the duck per universe,” he said. “The remedy does not even work against the flu, not to mention the coronavirus.”
Ernst is skeptical of most forms of alternative medicine, including homeopathy, and says incidents like a pandemic are “bound” to bring charlatans out into the open. The risks of listening to their advice can be grave, he added.
“First and foremost, rationality is being undermined if people start believing that the absence of an active molecule, like in homeopathy, can have positive health effects,” he said. “Then your wallet is at risk because these treatments are by no means cheap. And finally, people who believe in the absurd claims of charlatans might think they are safe, while in fact they are not. Thus they might neglect other measures to reduce the risk of getting infected.”
Oils might smell good, and taking duck liver water every day might make you feel proactive in the face of looming danger. But the only known ways to reduce your chances of contracting COVID-19 are still social distancing, copious amounts of handwashing. Until a vaccine is available, the only thing anyone can credibly do is exercise caution.
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