No, megadoses of vitamin C won't cure a coronavirus infection

The world is awash in treatments for COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus. Or at least that's what you might think if you just searched the internet.

The truth is, we don't yet have any effective treatments for COVID-19, although thousands of scientists are working furiously to try to create them.

Today we'll look at just one of the supposed treatments, which is being actively promoted on social media and many websites: vitamin C.

For those who don't want to read further, I'll start with the conclusion: vitamin C won't help to prevent or to treat coronavirus infection. I wish we had such a simple solution, but we don't.

Now let's back up a bit. Why would anyone think that vitamin C might be effective in treating this terrible virus? Vitamin C is an essential nutrient, and we all need it, but most people get plenty of vitamin C in their normal diet. As I've written before, taking vitamin C supplements is unnecessary but probably harmless, although megadoses carry the risk of kidney stones.

The modern craze with vitamin C started with Linus Pauling, a brilliant chemist and a Nobel Prize winner. Late in his career, he wrote a book promoting vitamin C as a miracle cure for many illnesses, including the common cold (which is caused by a virus). He had very little good evidence for this belief, but his promotion of vitamin C led to hundreds of studies testing his hypothesis. The bottom line: vitamin C doesn't work at preventing or curing the common cold. (See Paul Offit's book if you want more details on this and many other "miracle" cures.)

But wait, someone might object: haven't some of those vitamin C studies (as in this review paper) shown a benefit against the common cold? Well yes, but when you run hundreds of studies of a treatment that doesn't work, this is what happens: negative studies are hard to get published, but positive studies are easier. Run enough studies, and a few of them, merely by chance, will show a small positive effect. That's what we've seen with vitamin C.

Today, though, everyone is looking for a cure for COVID-19, and not surprisingly, many people (even some doctors) are claiming vitamin C is the answer. I've seen Twitter users explain, very confidently, that you just need to take 12,000 mg of vitamin C and you'll get better. This website comes right out and states that high-dose vitamin C will cure coronavirus, based on a widely-shared video from a doctor in China. (I won't provide the link because it has already done enough damage.)

It's almost impossible to disprove a claim that a treatment works. For example, I could claim that ginger snap cookies helps to prevent coronavirus infection. That's right! Ginger snaps, made with real ginger, which seems to have magical curative properties. If you object, I could demand that you prove me wrong–but the onus is on me, as the one making the claim, to first provide some genuine evidence. We haven't seen anything like that for vitamin C.

We need well-controlled experiments to know with any confidence that a treatment works. Some doctors at Wuhan University have started a trial of vitamin C to see if it has any benefits for COVID-19, but results won't be available for many months. I'm skeptical, but at least they're approaching the question the right way.

Dozens of studies of new treatments for COVID19 are being launched right now, with remarkable speed due to the urgency of the pandemic.The WHO has just launched trials of the 4 most promising existing drugs (which don't include vitamin C, I should add). To obtain a believable, positive result, we need to see evidence that a carefully administered treatment provides a significant benefit over what we're doing now–which is little more than supportive care, unfortunately.

Meanwhile, we'll have to wait and hope that one of the plausible efforts currently under way will yield an effective treatment. We've been down this road too many times with vitamin C, though, and the chances that it will have any effect are, based on past experience, close to zero.

FDA to coronavirus scammers: watch out!

The coronavirus pandemic has the whole world's attention. For now, there's no treatment and definitely no cure for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

That hasn't stopped charlatans and scammers to claim that they have treatments, and to offer them for sale. I often wonder (sometimes in this column) whether people selling bogus cures truly believe their own statements, or whether they are just liars who know they're selling nonsense. In the former case, they are merely misinformed or ignorant. In the latter case, they are con artists who deserve our scorn. In either case, though, we shouldn't be buying their products.

Let's look at a few marketers who have gotten the attention of regulators just this past week. In the U.S., the FTC and the FDA announced that they just took the following action:
"The FTC and FDA have jointly issued warning letters to seven sellers of unapproved and misbranded products, claiming they can treat or prevent the Coronavirus. The companies’ products include teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver."
That's right, scammers: you better clean up your acts, or else we're going to ... write you a letter!

To be fair, it's not the fault of the FTC or the FDA that their enforcement powers are so weak. Congress has severely limited the ability of the FDA to regulate businesses who sell supplements and other scams, as I've written before. The supplement industry is big business, and they've lobbied Congress–very successfully–to prevent any truly effective regulation.

So here are the seven scammers whose claims were so outrageous that the FDA and the FTC have already (in just a few weeks, record time for these agencies) notified them that they must stop their false advertising:

The products offered by these dishonest marketers include essential oils, teas, and colloidal silver. None of them work at all against coronavirus. The FTC warning letters point to their websites, Twitter, and Facebook.

I checked them out to see if the claims are still there, and here's what I found.

Twitter suspended the Quinessence account for violating its rules, but the N-ergetics Twitter account is still live, and it features a claim that "Colloidal Silver Benefits against Antibiotic resistant ZIKA, Viruses, Superbugs, Flu." (That claim is false.)

Vivify Holistic was using Facebook to promote false claims (according to the FDA letter), and Facebook has apparently shut down that page. GuruNanda's FB and Twitter accounts are both active, but they seem to have removed their claims about coronavirus.

Vital Silver's FB page has a posting from March 9, apparently prompted by the FDA letter, stating that "These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease." This is the standard disclaimer that all supplement makers use. But then they added this "The content of this page are based on my religious beliefs as protected by the First Amendment." That's a new one to me. Nonetheless, their product still can't cure coronavirus.

Herbal Amy promotes her products through Facebook and a website: the FDA told her to take down her "Coronavirus protocol" products (she had many of them), which she seems to have done. Her FB page is still active, and she explains there that "we have had a Coronavirus protocol for sale for the last 2.5 YEARS. This is not a new herbal formula or a new virus." Huh? So her argument is that she has been making a false claim for a long time now?

Jim Bakker is another story. For those too young to remember, Bakker was a popular televangelist in the 1970s and 1980s who was convicted of 24 counts of financial fraud. He served five years in prison and resumed his television preaching in 2003. One of the ways he makes money is selling colloidal silver (tiny silver particles suspended in liquid), which he recently claimed could cure coronavirus. This led the FDA, the FTC, and the NY Attorney General to order Bakker to stop his false advertising.

The state of Missouri has gone further than the feeble FDA: they are suing Jim Bakker to stop him from harming people. The Missouri attorney general charged that Bakker is
"falsely promising to consumers that Silver Solution can cure, eliminate, kill or deactivate coronavirus and/or boost elderly consumers' immune system and help keep them healthy when there is, in fact, no vaccine, pill, potion or other product available to treat or cure coronavirus disease 2019."
Good for the Missouri AG. Time will tell if all of these demands will change Bakker's behavior.

I should add that colloidal silver doesn't treat anything, and in fact it can be truly harmful. A JAMA Dermatology article a few years ago described it as "dangerous and readily available." Stay away from this stuff.

This article wouldn't be complete if I didn't add one more scam artist: the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has claimed, ridiculously, that he has a toothpaste that can “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.” No such toothpaste exists, and the New York attorney general has ordered Jones to stop.

As I wrote at the beginning, I can't know for certain which of the people selling these products truly believe they have a treatment for COVID-19 and which of them are knowingly lying. But consumers should beware: false claims will continue to appear as long as there's money to be made.

No one has a treatment for coronavirus infection. The WHO has a site up now, which I recommend, that dispels many of the myths. I'll close with a quote from that site:
"To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV)."