The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst public health crisis in decades. As of October 2020, cases are surging again worldwide, there is no vaccine expected anytime soon, and North America is preparing to head into its winter flu season. Hospital overcrowding and growing numbers of deaths seem inevitable. While this wave feels different than the first (we know more about how the virus is transmitted, and the science has progressed significantly on the best treatment approaches), the situation is still very grim. While stories of how people have pulled together, pitched in and helped others have appeared, so have stories of those that have treated this catastrophe as an opportunity to promote or sell products and treatments that haven’t actually been shown to prevent or treat COVID-19. That’s what this post is about. With a nod to the Behind the Bastards podcast for taking on this topic back in March, here is my growing list of COVID-19 snake oil promoters.
You may not know more of Alex Jones than his name alone, in which case you should count yourself lucky. Alex Jones is the man behind the InfoWars website, videos and in particular, online store. For years, Jones has touted vile conspiracy theories like calling the Sandy Hook shooting a false flag attack, none of which has harmed his credibility with President Donald Trump, who appeared on his online show in 2015. Jones has been posting paranoid rants for years, and despite being banned from most social media platforms, has used the COVID pandemic as an opportunity for him to drive more sales to his online store. In particular, colloidal silver and other silver-containing products were touted as effective anti-COVID products. His videos had statements like:
I’m just gonna tell ya, that for just your daily life, and your gums and your teeth and for regular viruses and bacteria, the patented Nano Silver we have, the Pentagon has come out and documented, and homeland security have said this stuff kills the whole SARS corona family, at point blank range. Well of course it does, it kills every virus. But they found that, this is 13 years ago, and the Pentagon uses the product we have. And the product we have in private label is about to be in Walmart . . . the Nano Silver toothpaste in the Superblue with the tea tree and the iodine, that’s the Superblue’s amazing, and we have the whitening toothpaste that has the Nano Silver and a lot more as well.
In March, the New York Attorney General ordered Jones to stop making claims that his products could protect against coronavirus infections. Then in April, the FDA issued a warning letter to Jones telling him to stop making COVID-19 claims about his “Superblue Silver Immune Gargle,” “SuperSilver Whitening Toothpaste,” “SuperSilver Wound Dressing Gel” and “Superblue Fluoride Free Toothpaste.”
Mike Adams is no stranger to this blog. He promotes a variety of conspiracy theories offering something to everyone on both the far-right and the far-left, and his vast collection of websites was recently cited by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue as possibly the “largest coordinated disinformation network in the world” outside of Russia. He is an HIV/AIDs denialist, a 9/11 “Truther”, anti-vaccine, anti-chemotherapy (arguably anti-medicine), anti-fluoride, an Obama “birther”, and a climate change denialist. He believes that non-human (i.e., alien) entities are controlling “globalists” who intend to force-vaccinate us all for population control…or…something. Like Jones, Adams has been banned from Google News, Apple, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook, but Adams’ dozens (possibly over 100) of websites means his content is still shared widely across social media platforms. Beyond disinformation, Adams is all about the grift. His online store (nope, not linking to it) sells supplements, potions and even products to help you become a “prepper” for when the globalists-controlled-by-aliens bring you the COVID vaccine. None of this is new for Adams, he’s been “prepping” for the past 20 years, dating back to his apocalyptic predictions about Y2K.
Any list of people providing questionable health advice seems to bring out the same names, and the next one is also well known to this blog. Joe Mercola is an osteopath and huckster who sells a wide variety of products and is also a strong verbal and financial supporter of the anti-vaccine movement. He is noted to currently claim that dozens of vitamins, supplements and other products on his blog can prevent or treat COVID-19 infections. He mixes this with false and misleading COVID-19 statements in attempts to boost the sales of products on his website. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, he claimed that contracting the virus after using his supplements will confer greater protection than a COVID-19 vaccine, a claim that is stunning in its foolishness.
Jim Bakker is a televangelist and convicted felon who hosts The Jim Bakker Show. He was warned by the FDA in February to stop promoting his own colloidal silver product as a COVID-19 treatment. In March the state of Missouri (where Bakker is based) filed a lawsuit against him to stop him from advertising or selling his products as a COVID treatment. This was followed by a warning from the FDA and a cease-and-desist letter from the state of New York. Subsequently his ability to accept credit cards was apparently cut off and he was said to be on the brink of bankruptcy. In June, the state of Arkansas joined Missouri by also suing Bakker for selling colloidal silver products as a COVID-19 treatment.
Steven Novella wrote about Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, back in September. Oleandrin is a chemical extracted from the oleander plant. It, like thousands of other chemicals derived from natural sources, has been isolated, purified, and studied for possible medicinal value. An in-vitro (laboratory) test of oleandrin found that it may have anti-viral properties. This is promising, but that’s as far as the evidence goes. There is no in-vivo (in human) trials to show that oleandrin is safe or effective as a treatment. David Juurlink, a physician and toxicologist, noted that the presumed effective concentration is well within the toxic range for humans. Oleandrin causes nausea and vomiting, and then, arrhythmias and sometimes death. Oleandrin received more attention that it deserved through Lindell’s promotion of the chemical to the Trump administration. The FDA put a stop to this and rejected an application to treat oleandrin as a dietary supplement, because it considers the chemical to meet the definition of a drug. We shouldn’t see any oleandrin products anytime soon, considering its toxicity and lack of effectiveness. Juurlink noted,
No one should take oleandrin to prevent COVID…Anyone gullible and foolish enough to take it despite this advice should get their affairs in order beforehand.
Way back in March, actor Keith Middlebrook was arrested by the FBI in a sting operation where he was delivering a COVID preventative/cure to a potential “investor”, who was an undercover agent. Middlebrook had been promoting pills and some sort of injectable liquid to his millions of Instagram followers, claiming they provided immunity or a cure. Middlebrook was seeking investors, promising a guaranteed return of $30 million after an initial investment of $300,000. Since his initial arrest and subsequent release, Middlebrook continues to insist that his products are legitimate and he continues to reject the label of “con man”.
Dave Asprey is the man behind the “Bulletproof” brand – the guy who popularized putting oil and butter in your coffee. He has built his “biohacking” brand into an empire of books, podcasts, and product sales. Asprey’s output combines cherry-picked science with pseudoscience, wrapped up in a self-experimentation ethos that superficially sounds compelling but falls short in actual evidence. Asprey decided to “hack coronavirus” earlier this year and endorsed a long list of products like andrographis, probiotics, vitamins, coenzyme Q10, omega fatty acids, black cumin seed oil, hydroxytyrosol, sulforaphane and l-glutamine, and directing readers to his own products for sale. The Federal Trade Commission asked him to stop:
It is unlawful under the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 41 et seq., to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made. For COVID-19, no such study is currently known to exist for the products identified above. Thus, any Coronavirus-related prevention claims regarding such products are not supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. You must immediately cease making all such claims.
Dominique Fradin-Read and compounding pharmacies
Dominique Fradin-Read is a medical doctor and contributor to Gwyneth Paltrow’s growing Goop empire, creating the “Madame Ovary” supplement regimen (just $90/month). In October an NPR story reported that Fradin-Read was endorsing an unapproved drug, thymosin alpha-1. She is not alone in the promotion of this chemical, but is probably the most well-known advocate for claiming it has value to prevent or treat COVID infections. Thymosin alpha-1 is a hormone secreted by the thymus which has been isolated and its biological effects are now being studied, as well as its potential as a drug product. In 2000 the FDA granted thymalfasin (a synthetic analog of thymosin alpha-1) injection (Zadaxin) orphan drug status for the treatment of liver cancer, which was followed in 2006 with the designation for malignant melanoma. It is approved as a drug is some countries, but not the US, where it is not currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of any indication, COVID or otherwise. Consequently, it is not sold as a commercial product. However, this has not prevented Fradin-Read from promoting it, which can be obtained from an array of compounding pharmacies. I have blogged about compounding pharmacies before, which can manufacture drug products not otherwise commercially available. While compounding pharmacies can provide invaluable services and access to needed, customized drug products, their products are not tested for quality or safety by the FDA. In worst-case scenarios, when quality and safety standards are ignored, contaminated products from compounding pharmacies can kill. Some compounding pharmacies have jumped on the thymosin alpha-1 bandwagon. NPR notes:
NPR found medical practices widely marketing thymosin alpha-1 for COVID-19 based in Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Iowa, New York and California, among other places. Not every practice discloses how much it charges for these injections online, but a handful of companies list prices in the range of $369 for a one-month supply, or $400 for a “ten-syringe set.” Most of the medical practices that promoted the drug are not specialized in infectious diseases but rather focus on plastic surgery or promote “wellness,” “anti-aging” and “regenerative” medicine.
To be continued
My list is admittedly incomplete, and also too North America-centric. Who did I miss? Leave your nominations in the comments.