COVID-19 pandemic: A golden opportunity for quackery

This week, the COVID-19 pandemic started to shift into high gear in the US. The stock market tanked worse than any time since the crash of 1987, so much so that, given its losses over the last several days, it’s now firmly in bear market territory. My two favorite meeting, which have the bad timing/fortune to be in the spring (Society of Surgical Oncology and Society of Surgical Oncology) have been cancelled, with more likely to come, such as the American Society of Breast Surgeons meeting. Major League Baseball has delayed the start of its season; the NCAA has canceled March Madness; and the NBA has shut down its season for at least 30 days. Broadway is going dark, and numerous television shows are dispensing with their live studio audiences during taping for at least a few weeks. These are interesting times we live in. Meanwhile, under the “leadership” of an arrogant incompetent orange ignoramus with a massive ego that requires constant sycophancy and stroking, who spouts misinformation on an hourly basis and will never, ever try to relieve his black hole density ignorance with actual information that experts have been desperately trying to dangle in front of him to get his interest by coupling it with “Dear Leader”-style overblown praise of his awesomeness, the COVID-19 pandemic appears, by every measure, ready to explode out of control. (I can hear you all thinking, “Tell us what you really think about Donald Trump, Orac.” I can also sense you thinking, “That’s a hell of a long sentence!” It’s not a run-on sentence, though, even though it feels like one. That’s just me. If it bugs you, you don’t have to read this blog.)

Even under the stewardship of a competent President and administration, whenever there’s a pandemic, there is woo. During the SARS pandemic in 2002-2003, I hadn’t yet started blogging and wasn’t paying close attention to such things. I did, however, see the woo in spades during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009-2010. This time around, it’s so much worse. Or, at least, it seems worse. Maybe it’s the way that social media weaponizes bullshit. Certainly, having a bona fide conspiracy theorist as President doesn’t produce an environment conducive to rational thought. Unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories are flowing freely about COVID-19 coronavirus, including the bogus claim that the flu vaccine makes people more susceptible to COVID-19 and, that perennial favorite during every outbreak of a new disease, the conspiracy theory that the new pathogenic organism was the result of a bioweapon or failed vaccine.

So it’s not a surprise that there are a lot of quacks and scammers trying to convince people that there are “natural cures” for or “natural” ways of preventing COVID-19 illness. For instance, the antivaccine quack website Modern Alternative Mama, Kate Tietje has offered its Natural Remedies for Coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, these quackery-loving mommas frame the issue as “taking care of their families”:

Everyone has a different theory on what is happening. Some think it’s just an overblown panic to get negative attention in an election year. Others think it’s much worse than they’re telling us and many will die. Most are somewhere in the middle on that.

Right now (Mar. 12), there are about 1300 cases in the US, and have been around 40 deaths. A government doctor has come out and said that he expects there to be 70 – 150 million cases in the US before it’s over. (In comparison, China, a country with 3x the population we have, had about 100,000 cases.) (source)

We’re also in a tough financial situation, as a country, because of this. Some businesses are shutting down. The NBA ended their season early. The stock market has plunged 20% and a recession could be looming. (source)

Basically, it’s led to a lot of panic.

We can’t control what the bigger picture looks like right now. But we can do our best to take care of our own families. That’s why I dove into the research surrounding the use of herbs and other natural remedies for coronavirus.

I love the first paragraph. It’s the very definition of the fallacy of the golden mean. Take two extreme positions, and, obviously, the “true” position must be between them. No, COVID-19 is most definitely not an “overblown panic to get negative attention during an election year.” It’s all but certain that many will die. We just don’t know how many. The number will depend upon the interventions our government and every other government implement. In the case of our government, I have close to zero confidence.

Of course, our “mommas” are unhappy:

First I have to say, I’m frustrated with the lack of research done into botanicals and various bacteria/viruses. In China, they’ve studied key herbs and formulas and how they impact other strains of coronavirus for at least 20 years. They know that botanicals are important when people are resistant to antibiotics and Western medicine doesn’t have very good antivirals. But no, the US “doesn’t believe in” herbs, so they’re not researching them.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. Many pharmaceuticals are derived from natural products; i.e., “botanicals.” They’re either natural products isolated from “botanicals” and then synthesized in the lab, or they are natural products chemically modified to add desirable properties to them, such as better absorption by the GI tract or better binding to the target protein. In any event, our “mama” thinks that the following “show promise”:

  • Echinacea
  • Elderberry
  • Garlic
  • Peppermint
  • Astragalus root

The elaboration:

In one study (source), all of these were shown to have anti-viral activity before a person was infected. That is, they help to inhibit viral replication.

I’m amused. The source cited above was an in vitro study in cell culture. Not only that, but it wasn’t even a virus that infects humans; rather the virus infects birds. It’s the avian infectious bronchitis virus. Let’s just put it this way: Activity in cell culture is no guarantee of actual antiviral activity in human beings, doubly so if the cell culture study is for a virus that infects chickens.

Next up, elderberry. I can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and, “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberry!” Of course, elderberry is not perfect against COVID-19, but:

Many have heard that elderberry isn’t the right remedy for CoVid-19. I would agree it’s probably not the best thing to use if you get sick — there are better options (keep reading to see them). Although for the majority, it is perfectly fine to use.

A lot of people are point to this study, which says that elderberry can boost cytokine production in healthy people. They are extrapolating that out to mean that elderberry shouldn’t be used daily and/or can cause a cytokine storm. The study does not say either one of these things. It concludes that stimulating the immune system may actually be beneficial for health. It also does not address the issue of “cytokine storms” at all, and the study population was an entire 12 people. (This study and this study have much more in-depth, balanced looks at elderberry’s effects on the body.)

Elderberry is best used for daily support or at the very onset of symptoms. If things are getting worse, then stop elderberry and try some of the suggestions below. But don’t be afraid of elderberry.

The first study is 19 years old and purports to show that the black elderberry extract (Sambucol) increases inflammatory cytokines in cases of influenza. Of course, even if true (and this study is old and not replicated as far as I can tell) this might be disastrous in COVID-19 infection, which causes an interstitial pneumonia that might well be due to an excessive immune response. (We don’t know yet.) In any event, a systematic review from ten years ago characterized elderberry extract as promising but unproven. The literature really is pretty thin on this.

The second study was nothing more than a study of chemical encapsulation methods, in which liposomes containing elderberry components were tested in cell culture. This hardly validates the claim that elderberry will prevent coronavirus infection. The last study wasn’t just an in vitro cell culture study, but it’s an in vitro cell culture study looking at mouse macrophages and dendritic cells. Again, these are studies of concentrated extracts and/or purified compounds from elderberry, not eating elderberries, and, except for the first one, involve no human studies.

If claiming that elderberries will protect you from coronavirus is irresponsible, then the claim that “natural” remedies will treat coronavirus infection is even worse:

What if you get coronavirus? First, don’t panic. For many people, it will be like a bad cold. If you are young and healthy, you are not at high risk. If you are over 50, have underlying conditions, have chronic lung issues, or an otherwise compromised immune system, you are at greater risk. Wash hands more often, consider staying home if you can. When it comes to natural remedies, they will be most effective at symptom onset. Don’t wait until you are really not feeling well before you start trying some. As soon as you feel a slight headache, or scratchy throat, or congestion — start using remedies. (This is pretty universal, btw, not just for CoVid-19. Remedies get your body ready to fight effectively, but if it’s already overwhelmed, that’s a lot harder. The #1 mistake people make with natural remedies is waiting too long to use them. #2 is not using them aggressively enough when they don’t feel well. #3 is choosing the wrong remedies. These three things are almost always the reasons why people say natural “doesn’t work.”) The top herbs to use when you’re already sick are:
  • Sage
  • Licorice root
  • Echinacea
  • Peppermint
  • Lemon balm
  • Dandelion root
  • Mullein
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Cinnamon
Studies have shown that these specific herbs have strong anti-viral actions, including against other strains of coronavirus. The first 5 are specific to being antiviral. Mullein has a strong affinity for lungs and can support people through all kinds of respiratory infections. Turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon are all powerful anti-inflammatories.

No, no, no, no, no. Let’s just say that none of the papers cited provide good evidence that any of the “natural remedies listed have much, if any, effect on COVID-19 or coronaviruses in general. Particularly irresponsible is this review article in an integrative medicine (i.e., quack) journal that claims that traditional Chinese medicine can be used to prevent coronavirus infection. The evidence? Vague reports of antiviral activity and crappy reports claiming that using TCM prevented SARS during the 2003 pandemic and could prevent H1N1 influenza during the 2009-2010 pandemic.

Kate Tietje isn’t alone promoting COVID-19 quackery. A website called Home Natural Cures has an article entitled Top 10 best coronavirus infection natural treatments. These “remedies” were actually a bit disappointing in that they were a mix of the sensible that, while probably not likely to impact the course of a COVID-19 infection, will at least make one feel better, at least as long as the infection isn’t one of the 15%-20% who need hospitalization or the 5% or so who wind up critically ill on a ventilater, and evidence-free. For instance, some of the recommendations include:

  • Stay home and rest
  • Clean your home
  • Steamy shower
  • Have your own towel
  • Use a tissue

Then, of course, there’s the usual list of herbal and “natural” remedies that almost certainly will do no good, although at least they’re probably harmless:

  • Echinacea
  • Cinnamon
  • Yoga
  • Mint tea
  • Gargle with warm water
  • Garlic
  • Menthol
  • Oregano oil

These are all well and good, but, contrary to the implications in the article, they will likely not have an impact on the clinical course of COVID-19 infection.

Next up, here’s an article recommending ways to “boost your immune system” to prevent coronavirus infection. Its recommendations? Vitamin C (of course!). Also it recommends elderberries (a popular choice), andrographis (a traditional herb used in Ayurvedic medicine), mushrooms, and echinacea (again). Nope, there’s no evidence that these compounds will prevent coronavirus infection, and you can’t “boost your immune system” this way.

Elsewhere, quacks are shilling for other “natural remedies.” Along with the usual suspects (elderberries, mushrooms, and the like), there’s:

Immune Support is a natural immunity booster that boosts your white blood cells against viruses, bacteria and harmful pathogens. It includes the most powerful herbs, fruit extracts and antimicrobials that are proven to keep you safe from infectious pathogens. It even has the Essiac Herbs that are highly anti-viral and protect you against cancers.

Nope. Nopity nope. A product consisting of vitamin E, green tea extract, mushroom extract, etc. will not protect you from COVID-19.

Next up:

Zeolite is a natural anti-viral, anti-cancer, radiation and heavy metal detox alkaline mineral that strips the protection off of viruses. It comes in powder (the most economical) or Liquid Zeolite With Fulvic Acid, Organic Herbs, and Immune boosting medicinal mushrooms as in the Zeotrex. If you prefer to take capsules you can use the Zeolite-AV with Humic Acid instead.

Nopity nope again. Zeolite, of course, is an all-purpose “miracle” medicine. Basically, as I discussed so long ago, it’s a compound that is derived from a volcanic mineral called clinoptilolite, and it’s sold as a powder or a milky suspension, and, as above, all sorts of claims are made for it, including claims that it “detoxifies,” can cure cancer, and is antiviral.

Then, of course:

Nano Colloidal Silver is a potent and powerful immune system simulator and protects you against other types of viral and bacterial infections as well as cancers. It is naturally anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-microbial.

Colloidal silver is a common alternative medicine treatment for severe infection based on a germ of reality. Unfortunately, that germ of reality is, as is so often the case, inflated by magic into incredibly expansive claims that colloidal silver can treat any infection. Here’s what I mean. Silver salts are indeed used as an antibacterial compound, Also remember that various silver salts are already used to treat superficial infections. For example, silver sulfadiazine (Silvadene) is a routine treatment for burns to prevent infection. The problem is dose. Taking silver internally will never generate a high enough concentration in the blood to have antibacterial effects, much less antiviral effects, but over a prolonged period of time it can turn you into a Smurf.

Finally:

Parasite Zapper is a small devices use a simple 9 volt battery and zap pathogens with an electromagnetic frequency that disrupts their breeding and weakens their skin so they literally explode. Your white blood cells (macrophages) then clean them up. That’s why it’s important to drink plenty of alkaline water to keep them moving our of your system afterwards.

Holy cancer quack Hulda Clark, the subject of one of my first ever posts for this blog!

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.

Moreover, there are conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, antivaxxers think it’s all about them:

Because of course it is.

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.