New analysis: Most fake COVID-19 products claim antiviral, immune-boosting properties

Media Contacts
Grace Brombach

FDA warning letters reveal how snake oil puts public health at risk

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

PHILADELPHIA — Desperate for a cure to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), many Americans are turning to the internet for answers. What they’re finding, however, is a minefield of dubious products posted by unscrupulous sellers. False claims are tricking worried people into paying for fake solutions that give them a false sense of security. The federal government hasn’t approved any product that prevents or treats COVID-19.

While myriad fake COVID-related products exist online, a new analysis from U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that the most common were for products using claims of antiviral or immune-boosting properties. The group looked at 34 warning letters issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Fake cures for the novel coronavirus are spreading rapidly online, potentially wreaking havoc on Americans’ health,” said Grace Brombach, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog associate. “Claiming that a product will cure or protect people from the deadly virus isn’t just a threat to the consumer — it risks the virus being transmitted further.”

By law, the FDA has to approve any product that claims to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose or cure COVID-19. When a company attempts to bypass that rigorous process, the FDA may send a warning letter — and it can lead to fines eventually.

Additional findings in U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s analysis include: 

  • More than 1 in 6 warning letters were for products claiming that colloidal silver is effective in mitigating, preventing or curing coronavirus, even though the FDA warned more than two decades ago that silver products have no adequately-proven medical benefits. That determination has not changed.

  • Five warning letters were issued to cannabidiol products with unsubstantiated claims related to how they treated, mitigated or cured the virus.

  • More than half the FDA warning letters (56 percent) were issued to products claiming to either enhance immune systems or have antiviral properties that would prevent, mitigate, treat or cure COVID-19.

  • Despite FDA efforts, U.S. PIRG Education Fund found other products for sale that made similar claims about effectiveness against COVID-19. For example, online brand 78Minerals is selling a product that advertises nutrients and minerals to “help fight the coronavirus and strengthen your immune system.” My Corona Defense by NeoLife claims on social media that the product “helps boost immunity to fight COVID-19 pandemic situation [sic].”

Claims made by sellers about their products had a number of similarities. Some offered testimonies from individuals who were supposedly cured of the coronavirus after taking the treatment. Others used rhetorical questions to try and convince the reader of their healing power. But in each case, the FDA determined the claims were without the necessary evidence. 

To help consumers avoid these types of products, U.S. PIRG Education Fund has developed a guide to identify false claims.

As of yesterday, no product exists that has been approved by the FDA to prevent or treat COVID-19. Online shoppers should verify any product claiming to prevent or treat coronavirus through the CDC and FDA websites, even if it claims to be approved.