When it comes to how much we should worry over COVID-19, the disease stemming from the new coronavirus that, so far, has infected some 75,000 people in mainland China, there’s a real range of opinion.
The current president of the United States, for example, recently shrugged it off with the suggestion that a lot of people think it will go away in April with the heat—which might happen, but since it’s a new virus, nobody could say for sure. On the other end of the panic spectrum are the people trolling Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam on Twitter to promote biological weapon conspiracy theories and demand a full travel ban. That doesn’t seem based in very solid epidemiology either.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this are the alternative medicine and home remedy promoters, who have made claims for kimchi, red ginger and garlic broth as a coronavirus cure. While it seems unlikely that a team of the world’s best virologists and medical researchers have overlooked fermented cabbage, I’m happy to engage in this particular strain of magical thinking—any excuse to eat more kimchi.
Some of the other alternative cures I’m hearing about though, like arsenicum album 30, colloidal silver and chlorine dioxide, sound a lot less appetizing. Are they safe? Do they work? I went to Joe Schwarcz, professor of chemistry and director of McGill University’s office for science and society, to find out, starting with arsenicum.
“This is a homeopathic remedy,” says Schwarcz. “And homeopathy is perhaps the most absurd of all of the so-called alternative treatments out there because it’s based on the notion of non-existent molecules curing existing diseases. It’s 200-year-old bunk and, in this case, it’s especially dangerous because these people are claiming that it has either a preventive or curative effect on the coronavirus and that is just not the case.”
A lot of homeopathic remedies are so diluted that the active ingredient is essentially non-existent, which happens to be a really good thing in this particular case, given that the ingredient in question is arsenic (as the name “arsenicum” suggests). So, you can’t get arsenic poisoning, but Schwarcz says it’s still dangerous in that it might give folks a false sense of security.
Unlike the arsenic-free arsenicum, there is actual silver in colloidal silver supplements, an old patent medicine (not homeopathic) that’s currently being peddled by televangelist Jim Bakker as a coronavirus cure. The presence of real silver might seem like a selling point, and it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s not good for humans to eat or drink silver. We can’t process it, so it just builds up in the system. And, if too much builds up, it could develop into a condition called argyria, which turns people’s skin bluish-grey. You might want to do a Google Image search on that right now.
“When silver compounds are exposed to light, they turn dark so people taking this colloidal silver in high enough doses run the risk of permanent skin discoloration if they’re exposed to sunlight,” explains Schwarcz. “And there is zero evidence that any viruses, including the coronavirus, can be treated or prevented by ingesting colloidal silver.”
Although colloidal silver has been promoted as an anti-bacterial and anti-viral in wellness circles for ages, it got a little boost in the past few years when Gwyneth Paltrow told Dr. Oz that she sprays a little under her tongue whenever she gets on a plane, to protect herself from all the viruses onboard. What? Paltrow flies commercial? Isn’t there a GOOP plane?
Anyhow, to hear Health Canada tell it, this is really not a good idea. In 2019, it issued a warning against colloidal silver supplements and, at the time, recalled some products. It’s still pretty widely available online, however.
Finally, there’s the Miracle Mineral Supplement, a chlorine dioxide solution that’s been marketed as a cure for cancer, HIV and autism and is now being floated as a potential cure for the coronavirus, especially in doomsday prepper and QAnon conspiracy theorist circles.
Why? MMS “pioneer” Jim Humble says it works on “most diseases of mankind,” so it should work on this, too.
There are no studies to support this. Worse, the active ingredient, Schwarcz tells me, is chlorine dioxide, which he characterizes as essentially “industrial bleach” that could, in large enough doses, cause nausea, vomiting and/or precipitous drops in blood pressure.
We can expect more bogus cures and misinformation in connection with the coronavirus, we’re sure. There’s something about the idea of a potential pandemic that brings out the panic (and opportunism), despite the fact that health authorities say we should be more worried about the flu right now.
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“That’s how people’s minds work,” says Vikram Misra, professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s department of microbiology, “You start to ignore risks that you see in everyday life and get used to and then over-react to things that, statistically, are a lot less significant.”
“At the same time, we do very little to prevent things that we can prevent,” he continues, “I mean, we should have been able to eradicate measles by now but, unfortunately, with peoples’ attitudes towards vaccination, we haven’t been able to. And measles kills way more people then the coronavirus probably ever will.”
And with the noise, opportunism and medical disinformation found on social media and emanating from the highest office in the country to the south of us, it’s unlikely we’re going to focus on the risks staring us down right now anytime soon.
Consider me worried. But not necessarily about COVID-19.