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With extreme care on messaging, immune support products might play role in COVID-19 crisis

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags coronavirus disease claims

As the news about COVID-19 becomes ever more sobering, the question becomes what dietary supplements might do to help. I think there is opportunity here, but talking about it requires walking a tightrope over a gulf of regulatory peril.

I was at first planning on reporting on this idea for a straight news feature. The idea was to examine how companies marketing immune support supplements might talk about their products as being beneficial to consumers rightfully concerned about COVID-19 without claiming to prevent, treat or cure that disease.

Industry sources take fright

The trouble was, no one I broached the subject with seemed very enthusiastic about being quoted in a sentence that might combine the terms ‘COVID-19’ and ‘immune support.’ So you have only my musings work with.

I can’t say as I blame them. FDA and FTC are obviously watching this like hawks.  FDA sent out a number of warning letters on COVID-19 claims​ the other day, and New York Attorney General Letitia James sent out her own cease and desist letter, to televangelist Jim Bakker of all people.

Sorry example of colloidal silver

Bakker’s transgression was making claims connected to colloidal silver products.  This ingredient has had a long history in the market, and an equally long history of being associated with opportunistic disease claims based on the substance’s anti viral and anti microbial properties. These have been demonstrated in some settings, such as wound care​, but the evidence backing the ingestion of the ingredient is less robust. FDA warned some colloidal silver promoters for making anthrax treatment claims back during the brief ‘weaponized anthrax’ scare of 2008​. More recently a promoter made claims about silver's ability to combat the Ebola virus.

Solid science backing many ingredients

But there are many other ingredients that have immune support properties that are far better supported, including vitamins, botanical and fungal ingredients.  Echinacea, for example, has long been one of the best sellers in the herbal product category according to the American Botanical Council’s annual Herbal Market Report.  The perennial top seller, horehound, occupies that position because of being the basis for the Ricola brand of cough drops.

The question is, how can the marketers of any of these ingredients or formulations responsibly talk about their benefits with frightened consumers in today’s climate? Some have adopted a tack that goes something like this:  “We all know that xxxxxxx herb can’t cure or prevent coronavirus, BUT . . .”

Let's be careful about that "BUT."  I totally agree that paying attention to one's overall health, including the use of specific immune boosting supplements, can be the way to a happy, productive, longer life.  COVID-19 is, however, a novel virus.  I think there is a guarantee that no dietary supplement ingredient is going to be able to prep the body's immune system to fight off something that humans have never been exposed to before. Health authorities are now saying that it might not be until 70% of the world’s population is ultimately infected over the next 12 to 18 months before humans start to develop something referred to as ‘herd immunity.’

Acting as a support, not first line of defense

In my view what an immune boosting supplement might be able to do is to put the body in a better position to combat the opportunistic infections that could come along with a case of severe disease caused by COVID-19. In that way they might make an ultimate successful outcome more likely. They won't be a starter in this game, but might be a useful player off the bench, so to speak.

That is something no one is ever going to be able to test, so that assertion must remain in the realm of conjecture. It would be theoretically possible to gather that info during patient intakes (which patients have taken herbal immune support products and which haven’t), so we could emerge from this situation with a data set that might have something to say about whether immune support dietary supplements have had any beneficial effect in this setting.

  But given the scope of the present crisis that’s unrealistic.  There aren’t enough tests for viral exposure available much less any sort of standardized intake forms for COVID-19 patients. Without some level of standardization, any data collected would be only slightly better than mere noise. And health care providers are going to have a lot on their plates, including possibly having to make life or death triage decisions about who gets urgent care and who doesn’t if there are too many patients to cope with.

Chance to shine, or to fall on our faces

In my view what we in the supplement industry are tasked with doing is to connect those dots in a responsible way without promising too much.  This crisis could be a chance for the industry to show itself in the best light as a responsible player, or we could come out looking like shysters trying to capitalize on the misfortune of others. This will be far from the last word on the subject, and I welcome hearing your thoughts.

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