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UBC medical expert warns of 'harmful' products touted as COVID-19 cures
VANCOUVER -- As the number of COVID-19 coronavirus infections grows, so too does the number of products hawked online by profiteers looking to capitalize on fears of the illness, prompting warnings from medical experts.
From pricey herbal "coronavirus prevention" tea to claims elderberry extract can lead to "significant reduction in viral load" to bottled colloidal silver and a form of bleach that users drink that purportedly "kills every pathogen, every virus, every bacteria, every fungus, every parasite" – experts are urging caution and evaluating claims with a skeptical eye.
"There is no one thing that is a magical cure (for coronavirus) and all those things you listed are questionable," said Barbara Gobis, UBC pharmaceutical sciences director.
She points out when you buy something online, "it could be something else – it could be lead, we don't know."
Despite health officials’ repeated explanations that hand-washing, avoiding touching one’s face and focusing on overall health are the best ways to stay healthy, Gobis is concerned those messages could be falling on deaf ears as growing anxiety and insecurity around the infection rate and death toll make nervous consumers easy prey for marketers looking to profit.
"If it's going to harm somebody because it's toxic or it's expensive so they're going to have to make a choice about purchasing this versus something else, that is a type of harm," said Gobis. "If it's preventing them from getting known treatments that can benefit them, all of those situations are harmful."
CTV News found numerous questionable "cures" and purportedly preventative treatments online, in addition to dozens of Craigslist postings in the Vancouver area for face masks and alcoholic hand sanitizer sold at steep mark-ups.
One seller was hawking a "coronavirus detector" and warning "it won’t be long before it spreads in our community" after a purported case in Victoria. Writing that it’s for "serious inquiries online," the post claims to have a device that can "detect the coronavirus from as far away as 25 feet." There’s also a food delivery service offering fully cooked meals for $15, writing "coronavirus have you or your loved one worried about leaving your home?"
A surge in misinformation
A U.S.-based watchdog organization composed of journalists who scrutinize the credibility of information posted online has found the number of fake news articles has skyrocketed.
John Gregory, deputy health editor for News Guard, said their analysis found 31 sites spreading misinformation two weeks ago, ballooning to 108, with the majority originating in the United States.
"These are generally the same bad actors you’d see posting on other conspiracy theories which we’ve already rated as unreliable," he said. "What you're seeing is a mixture of politically-minded conspiracy theories, the idea this virus was created in a lab, it's a leaked bio-weapon stolen from a Canadian lab by Chinese spies – to claims on the health side, such as this solution can cure coronavirus."
Gregory notes that aside from the products that are downright harmful and already banned by U.S. officials, even innocuous advice can be problematic.
"If they cause someone to delay treatment, if they cause someone to rely on that rather than going to a doctor, that still can be harmful in the long run," he said.
Health literacy for the masses
Personal and family health is one of the most deeply personal and intimate topics for people, and something that touches everyone. Gobis said that’s exactly why people need to think about where they’re getting their information and whether it’s a safe and credible source.
"I check the (World Health Organization) daily, frankly, for their status reports because I want to know what's going on," she said.
Simple precautions like hand-washing, eating healthy, wholesome foods and getting enough sleep can help the immune system stay strong and capable of fighting the coronavirus in case of infection.
"The same principles we use to prevent ourselves from getting the flu are in place for COVID-19," said Gobis.
"The one exception being because it's a new virus, we don't have a vaccine for it yet, but people are working on that."