You could have predicted that coronavirus prevention quacks would show up on the internet about 4.7 nanoseconds after the disease was found outside of China. Every uptick in reports about the disease causes a doubling in the number of coronavirus prevention pseudoscientific websites.
This article is going to list out some (but certainly not all) of the most quack-filled coronavirus prevention woo that I’ve seen. Since I don’t consciously try to find this junk, I may not catch them all.
There’s one thing you’ll notice – almost all of this nonsense is the exact same thing that the anti-vaccine crowd pushes as “alternatives” to vaccines. And as much as they don’t work for measles, flu, whooping cough, and other diseases, they don’t work for coronavirus.
First, the claim you can boost your immune system, for anything, let alone COVID-19, is an utter myth. The immune system isn’t a single point, for which you can provide some miracle supplement to improve its function.
The immune system is actually an immensely complex interconnected network of cells, organs, and biochemicals that protect the body from pathogens that can harm. There is not much you can do to make it work better than it already does, but reducing stress (OK, this might be difficult), exercise, don’t abuse your body with alcohol or smoking, and eating properly might be helpful.
Really, the only way to boost one’s immune system is with vaccines; unfortunately, there isn’t one for COVID-19.
Here’s a hint – if someone claims they have some magical substance that will boost your immune system, it is almost certainly true that they don’t.
Second, there are no supplements, plants, crystals, chiropractics, or anything that will “cure” coronavirus. Right now, we don’t have a specific treatment for the disease, but some antiviral medications are being used in lieu of anything else.
In more serious cases, they have to treat respiratory infections with respirators and antibiotics (for secondary infections).
And once again, if someone is pushing that they have the absolute cure for coronavirus, they almost certainly do not.
So, let’s look through some of the coronavirus prevention pseudomedicine on the internet.
If this isn’t clear to anyone, homeopathy is worthless. It has no clinical effect beyond placebo, and in clinical research, a placebo effect means it’s worthless.
Homeopathy is 100% water (or sugar or alcohol, depending on the preparation). And no, 100% water will do nothing for COVID-19, unless you were very thirsty. Then again, there are cheaper sources of water.
Homeopathy is not useful for coronavirus prevention. It will not cure or treat coronavirus. It is pure, unfettered woofuckery, something that is loved by the anti-vaccine zealots.
One of the most popular quack homeopathic potions is Oscillococcinum is a preparation, derived from Muscovy duck liver and heart (yes, you read that right), that is claimed to treat the flu. Because of the dilution, there are simply no molecules of duck guts in this potion.
Based on this ridiculous figurative and literal quackery (get it), one would not be surprised by a Cochrane systematic review that concludes, “There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness.”
In case you didn’t notice, homeopathy is pseudoscientific quackery.
One of the favorite “treatments” of vaccine deniers and coronavirus prevention quacks is colloidal silver. If you don’t much about this bit of medical woo, it is a suspension of microscopic particles of silver, usually in water.
Colloidal silver is a favorite of woo-pushing anti-vaxxers based on an undeserved reputation as a treatment for bacterial and viral infections and as a nonspecific “immune system booster.” However, there is no evidence that it can treat or prevent any viral infection, including coronavirus.
But, it can cause your skin and eyes to turn blue.
Except in very rare circumstances, supplements are a waste of money. They generally have no effect on any chronic or acute health condition, unless one has a diagnosed deficiency in a particular micronutrient. A healthy, balanced diet will mostly provide sufficient micronutrients for a healthy immune system and general health.
Let’s review some of the supplements that are claimed to be either coronavirus prevention or treatment.
- Echinacea (see Note 1) has a substantial marketing effort, based on hype and anecdotes, supporting its use as a supplement to treat colds and flu. However, powerful systematic reviews have shown us that it has no effect on colds. A highly biased, poorly designed study was published in a low impact factor journal that appears to show that echinacea may have an effect on the treatment of the flu. However, the evidence is unpersuasive, and there is no biological plausibility that echinacea has any effect on any virus, including the COVID-19 virus.
- Elderberry – another herbal product that is claimed to have some effect on the prevention or treatment of the flu. However, a review of the research on elderberry treatment finds that there is only weak and limited evidence that it has an effect on the flu. More rigorous clinical trials are necessary to support a hypothesis that the fruit has any effect on the flu – this does not mean it will, it just means more evidence is required before you waste your money on this supplement. Essentially, there are no published clinical studies on elderberry’s effects on any viral infection, except for one weak and unrepeated study from over 20 years ago. In fact, that old study showed that elderberry increased cytokine production, an immune response to inflammation. However, a recent study of 150 patients in China has shown that cytokine storms may be an indicator of potential mortality from the disease. Most of these supplements that I’m writing about are safe to take if you understand that they’re useless – elderberry is the exception, it could be dangerous.
- Vitamin C – simply put, there are no epidemiological clinical trials, vigorous or otherwise, that have ever established that vitamin C has any effect whatsoever on the course or treatment of the flu. Except in cases where an individual is deficient in vitamin C, very rare in today’s world, vitamin C supplementation has no effect on viruses.
- Vitamin D may be deficient in some individuals, especially during the winter. A recent meta-review found that “no association was observed between VDD and immunogenic response to influenza vaccination.” Another review of the literature concluded that “The survey of the literature data generates some controversies and doubts about the possible role of vitamin D in the prevention of influenza virus.”
- Ginseng has been claimed to have some immune system benefits, but there’s no robust evidence that supports that. There is one primary research report (on the lower range of the hierarchy of biomedical science), that is unconfirmed by other research or clinical trials, which may indicate that ginseng has some effect on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, other than a highly biased and small clinical trial, there is no substantial evidence that ginseng has any effect on the flu.
- Garlic – There is no robust epidemiological or clinical evidence that garlic has any effect on preventing or treating any viral infection. As usual, the anti-vaccine quacks (who are copied by coronavirus prevention quacks) take very weak evidence and use it to “prove” that garlic works for something. On the other hand, maybe consuming a lot of garlic will assist in social distancing.
I’m sure there will be numerous more products that will be promoted by the internet pseudoscience grifters for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19. None of them will have evidence supporting its use (given that it’s only been a few months since the infection was reported, so there’s been no time for proper clinical trials). None of them will have any evidence that they work for anything.
The meticulous Orac just wrote about these coronavirus prevention and treatment nonsense. He concluded that:
Quacks always see outbreaks and pandemics as an opportunity. Certainly they did in 2009 with H1N1 influenza and in 2014 for the Ebola outbreaks in Africa. None of this is surprising. It does, however, “feel” worse, likely because of ubiquitousness of social media, which, even in 2009, was nowhere near as all-encompassing as it is now.
Given that the pandemic is likely to last months, we can only expect more quackery, as believers in quackery seek to promote their ineffective treatments and quacks seek to profit.
There is nothing out there that works for coronavirus, except what we know from evidence-based medicine. We don’t have a vaccine, the only preventative measure other than public health recommendations like social distancing, testing, and other strategies.
All of these so-called treatments come right out of the anti-vaccine handbook that tries to claim that all of these “treatments” are better than vaccines.
Be skeptical of any claim you see on the internet about coronavirus prevention and treatment. Trust your science-based physician. Trust the CDC. Trust the World Health Organization. Not one of these prestigious institutions is recommending elderberry, garlic, homeopathy, vitamin C or whatever.
- Its modern use for the common cold began when a Swiss herbal supplement maker was told that Echinacea was used for cold prevention by Native American tribes who lived in the area of South Dakota. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that it works.
- Barak V, Halperin T, Kalickman I. The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines. Eur Cytokine Netw. 2001 Apr-Jun;12(2):290-6. PubMed PMID: 11399518.
- Dong W, Farooqui A, Leon AJ, Kelvin DJ. Inhibition of influenza A virus infection by ginsenosides. PLoS One. 2017 Feb 10;12(2):e0171936. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0171936. eCollection 2017. PubMed PMID: 28187149; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5302443.
- Douglas RM, Hemilä H. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. PLoS Med. 2005 Jun;2(6):e168; quiz e217. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020168. Epub 2005 Jun 28. PubMed PMID: 15971944; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1160577.
- Gruber-Bzura BM. Vitamin D and Influenza-Prevention or Therapy?. Int J Mol Sci. 2018 Aug 16;19(8). doi: 10.3390/ijms19082419. Review. PubMed PMID: 30115864; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6121423.
- Lee MD, Lin CH, Lei WT, Chang HY, Lee HC, Yeung CY, Chiu NC, Chi H, Liu JM, Hsu RJ, Cheng YJ, Yeh TL, Lin CY. Does Vitamin D Deficiency Affect the Immunogenic Responses to Influenza Vaccination? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2018 Mar 26;10(4). doi: 10.3390/nu10040409. Review. PubMed PMID: 29587438; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5946194.
- Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Garlic for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Nov 11;(11):CD006206. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006206.pub4. Review. PubMed PMID: 25386977.
- Mathie RT, Frye J, Fisher P. Homeopathic Oscillococcinum® for preventing and treating influenza and influenza-like illness.Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Jan 28;1:CD001957. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001957.pub6. Review. PubMed PMID: 25629583.
- Porter RS, Bode RF. A Review of the Antiviral Properties of Black Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) Products. Phytother Res. 2017 Apr;31(4):533-554. doi: 10.1002/ptr.5782. Epub 2017 Feb 15. Review. PubMed PMID: 28198157.
- Rauš K, Pleschka S, Klein P, Schoop R, Fisher P. Effect of an Echinacea-Based Hot Drink Versus Oseltamivir in Influenza Treatment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Double-Dummy, Multicenter, Noninferiority Clinical Trial. Curr Ther Res Clin Exp. 2015 Apr 20;77:66-72. doi: 10.1016/j.curtheres.2015.04.001. eCollection 2015 Dec. PubMed PMID: 26265958; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4528044.
- Rees JR, Hendricks K, Barry EL, Peacock JL, Mott LA, Sandler RS, Bresalier RS, Goodman M, Bostick RM, Baron JA. Vitamin D3 supplementation and upper respiratory tract infections in a randomized, controlled trial. Clin Infect Dis. 2013 Nov;57(10):1384-92. doi: 10.1093/cid/cit549. Epub 2013 Sep 6. PubMed PMID: 24014734; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3805175.
- Ruan Q, Yang K, Wang W, Jiang L, Song J. Clinical predictors of mortality due to COVID-19 based on an analysis of data of 150 patients from Wuhan, China. Intensive Care Med. 2020 Mar 3;. doi: 10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 32125452.
- Sandstead HH, Prasad AS. Zinc intake and resistance to H1N1 influenza. Am J Public Health. 2010 Jun;100(6):970-1. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2009.187773. Epub 2010 Apr 15. PubMed PMID: 20395565; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2866616.
- Stansfield SK, Pierre-Louis M, Lerebours G, Augustin A. Vitamin A supplementation and increased prevalence of childhood diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections. Lancet. 1993 Sep 4;342(8871):578-82. PubMed PMID: 8102720.
- Turner RB, Bauer R, Woelkart K, Hulsey TC, Gangemi JD. An evaluation of Echinacea angustifolia in experimental rhinovirus infections. N Engl J Med. 2005 Jul 28;353(4):341-8. PubMed PMID: 16049208.
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