May 21, 2020

Going “COVID Cuckoo” for a Cure

by Bonnie Denmark

COVID-19 has infected millions people around the globe and has kept billions of others in a state of suspended reality as we worry about ourselves and our loved ones, grieve losses, face financial uncertainty, and long for life as we knew it. But while scientists are working in overdrive to find viable treatments, justifiable fear has primed the pump for “snake oil peddlers” to flood the scene with purported cures.

19th-century salesmen hawked what they claimed was snake oil to cure a wide variety of ailments. “Snake oil” has since come to mean any false remedy or fraudulent product. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since the novel coronavirus was first detected in December 2019, the world has been going “COVID cuckoo.” Widespread anxiety and too much time trapped at home coupled with universal access to social media have created the perfect storm for quack cures to be circulated as enthusiastically as reliable information. Among the suggested coronavirus cures making the rounds on the web are hot peppers, garlic, teas, essential oils, aromatherapy, colloidal silver, hot baths, and saunas. Unfortunately, these can neither prevent nor cure COVID-19. Worse, some supposed remedies are downright dangerous.

The world never lacks for scam artists waiting to make a buck off people’s vulnerabilities. Products recently offered by opportunists include “Virus Shut Out” necklaces, “Superblue toothpaste” which claims to kill coronavirus on the spot, and “Skinny Beach COVID-19 treatment packs” at $4,000 a pop. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), government agencies have sent cease-and-desist letters to several companies for making “deceptive or scientifically unsupported claims about their ability to treat coronavirus (COVID-19).” Preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent claims not only violates federal law, it creates “a threat to the public health,” according to FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn.

Preying on the vulnerable in times of crisis is nothing new, as portrayed in the 1670 cartoon The Infallible Mountebank, or Quack Doctor. (Wikimedia Commons)

Whether coming from hucksters trying to turn a quick profit or well-meaning individuals wanting to spread the latest word about warding off the novel coronavirus, suggestions range from ineffective to deadly. One internet rumor claimed drinking alcohol would kill coronavirus. In Iran, alcoholic beverages are banned, so many people tuned to methanol, an industrial alcohol used for sanitizing. Sadly, methanol is toxic, and in March hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning far outstripped the number of confirmed coronavirus cases. In a six-and-a-half week period, over 700 people in Iran died from drinking methanol in an attempt to prevent or treat COVID-19. Others suffered from permanent damage to the brain, eyes, or other organs.

Another “treatment” with dire consequences involved a chemical compound called chloroquine. Chloroquine and its derivative, hydroxychloroquine, are being studied to treat COVID-19 but only in closely monitored hospital settings since these drugs can have some very serious side effects. However, when word got out that they may have potential to treat COVID-19, things went awry with the help of rapid-fire information delivery by way of the internet. One unfortunate man died and his wife became critically ill after ingesting a form of chloroquine used to clean fish tanks in hopes of protecting themselves against coronavirus.

To avoid mishaps like these, medical treatments must pass the muster of actual science. The scientific community is just as eager to quell the spread of COVID-19, but to ensure safe and effective treatments it is necessary to adhere to scientific principles. The process of science has built-in checks and balances regarding research design, data analysis, and interpretation of results. Research findings are subject to outside review, so results must be able to be replicated and conclusions must stand up to the scrutiny of other scientists. (Read more about research methods in our module The Practice of Science.)

Especially in the case of searching for a cure or vaccine, ethical standards in scientific inquiry ensure that results are reliable, conclusions are reasonable, research subjects are protected, and the resulting treatment does what it claims to while minimizing side effects. (Read about the crucial role of ethics in science in our module Scientific Ethics.)

Coronavirus research has been fast-tracked by the FDA, who created an accelerated program to move new treatments through development as quickly as possible. As of mid-May, 144 active trials were underway and another 211 were in the planning stages—with some very promising results.

As we wait for a cure, we will no doubt hear plenty of new treatment and prevention suggestions on our favorite social media platforms, but try not to go COVID cuckoo—instead, be sure that any medical therapy you pursue has passed the muster of real science. The time-honored process of science safeguards against unfounded claims and provides reassurance that scientifically based treatments have merit. In this way, the body of scientific knowledge grows, and we can hope for a hastened end to the current pandemic.



See myths about the coronavirus debunked by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters.

Get the latest on COVID-19 research from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

To learn more about how our understanding of infectious disease has evolved, check out these Visionlearning profiles of scientists:

  • Carlos J. Finlay: Eradicating Yellow Fever describes Dr. Finlay’s research in the early days of building the Panama Canal (1881–1914) helped stop the spread of yellow fever, which took the lives of more than 20,000 canal workers.
  • InDavid Ho: HIV Researcher, you can read about Dr. Ho’s breakthrough work in HIV treatment when he developed the “AIDS cocktail,” a combination of drugs that targeted the biology of HIV and saved millions of lives.

Written by Bonnie Denmark

Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.

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