Cashing in on the crisis: More FDA warning letters

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags Fda Ftc coronavirus Misleading marketing

There is currently no cure for coronavirus, however, that hasn’t stopped companies from preying on consumers’ fears, as a new raft of FDA warning letters makes clear.

As the coronavirus overwhelms many parts of the world, fake treatments continue to spread throughout the internet. 

Bogus claims have prompted the US Food and Drug Administration to take action against several individuals and companies, including prominent social media influencer Alex Jones of the site Infowars. The agency recently issued a warning letter to the conspiracy theorist demanding he stop promoting products he sells on his website as cures for the deadly virus. 

The FDA cited several examples of Jones’ fake claims that date back to February. The letter stated, “Described below, you sell products that are intended to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19 in people. We request that you take immediate action to cease the sale of such unapproved and unauthorized products for the mitigation, prevention, treatment, diagnosis, or cure of COVID-19.”

Silver snake oil

In one video posted on March 10, Jones claimed that "the patented Nano Silver we have, the Pentagon has come out and documented, and Homeland Security have said this stuff kills the whole SARS corona family, at point blank range.”

In a subsequent broadcast, Jones advised listeners to “boost your immune system,” ​adding, “We have the products that are documented on record to be good for your body,”​ before promoting gels and toothpaste that he claims contain silver.  The FDA has previously warned that colloidal silver is not safe or effective for treating any disease or condition.

Prior to the warning from the FDA, New York Attorney General Letitia James sent a cease-and-desist letter in March demanding Jones stop promoting his bogus medicine.

States also taking enforcement action

US Attorney General William Barr directed US attorneys' offices in every state to make enforcement a priority, and states' attorneys general are handing companies cease-and-desist letters demanding they stop misleading the public.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a consumer alert that warned the public, “Do not be hustled by opportunistic tricksters claiming to have a miracle cure. There is not a cure for COVID-19...I encourage anyone who has been the victim of a snake oil scam or who otherwise has information about products that are falsely touted as coronavirus treatments, tests, or cures to immediately file a complaint through my office’s website.”

Last month, the Missouri Attorney General sued prominent televangelist Jim Bakker​ and his company, Morningside Church Productions Inc., for claiming on a broadcast featuring a naturopathic doctor, that the product Silver Solution can cure coronavirus.  This led to a joint warning letter from the FDA and FTC.

More joint warnings 

In the past few weeks, the FDA and FTC issued several more warning letters to companies claiming their products prevent, treat or cure coronavirus.  This follows several other warning letters jointly issued by the agencies in early March.

  • Gaia’s Whole Healing Essentials LLC was warned for selling colloidal silver products with claims that the products can build immunity and possess anti-viral properties for the treatment or prevention of coronavirus.
  • Homeomart Indibuy was warned for claiming that its homeopathic drug products treat respiratory illnesses and act as a prophylactic to protect against coronavirus.
  • Health Mastery Systems DBA Pure Plant Essentials was warned for selling essential oils with coronavirus claims. Additionally, the letter also scrutinized the express and implied claims made in social media posts including the hashtags: “#coronavirus #covid #prevention #preventativehealth #symptoms #essentialoil #aromatherapy.”
  • NeuroXPF, founded by NFL player Kyle Turley, was warned for advertising its CBD products​ to prevent and treat  coronavirus. 

A recent press release stated that “The FDA considers the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products to be a threat to the public health. We have an aggressive surveillance program that routinely monitors online sources for health fraud products, especially during a significant public health issue such as this one,”​ said FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn. “We understand consumers are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and urge them to talk to their health care providers, as well as follow advice from other federal agencies about how to prevent the spread of this illness. We will continue to aggressively pursue those that place the public health at risk and hold bad actors accountable.”

FTC Chairman Joe Simons added that there is already a high level of anxiety right now. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims. These warning letters are just the first step. We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam.”

Last month, the FDA and FTC jointly issued warning letters to Vital Silver, Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd., Xephyr, LLC (who does business as N-Ergetics), GuruNanda, LLC, Vivify Holistic Clinic, Herbal Amy LLC, and The Jim Bakker Show for hawking teas, essential oils, tinctures and colloidal silver making coronavirus claims. 

Trade groups join the fight

Several dietary supplement industry trade associations are also urging retailers​ to not stock products that make coronavirus claims. 

The American Herbal Products Association, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the United Natural Products Alliance recently issued a press release applauding the FDA for “calling out marketers who make illegal and unsubstantiated drug claims related to COVID-19.”

The statement noted that the trade associations “support the responsible sale and use of vitamins, minerals, herbs and other dietary supplements that provide many positive benefits promoting better health and wellness. As we face the unprecedented threat of this global pandemic, illegal and unsubstantiated drug claims misdirect consumers toward ineffective products, divert them from seeking critical medical care, and endanger the public health.”

There are currently no products on the market that are approved to treat or prevent coronavirus. While there are investigational COVID-19 vaccines and treatments under development, these have not been fully tested for safety or effectiveness. Even if there was an ingredient that could treat or prevent the virus, dietary supplement companies are banned by DSHEA from making any disease treatment claims.

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