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9 Apr 2020

Watch out for fake coronavirus medicines and dodgy health advice

Unscrupulous sellers tout fake or unproven products claiming to prevent or cure COVID-19

Last updated: 24 April 2020

Unscrupulous sellers are trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic by touting dodgy or unproven coronavirus medicines and tests online. At the same time, fake news about ways to prevent or cure COVID-19 is rife, causing confusion about how to best protect yourself against the virus.

US President Donald Trump caused alarm in a White House press briefing by musing on whether injections of bleach or disinfectant may be able to kill the virus in the human body.

Doctors warned that this could have fatal results, and Reckitt Benckiser - the company that owns Dettol - has today issued a press release saying: 'under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).'

Meanwhile, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) continues to uncover fake or unlicensed COVID-19 medication being sold online.

It has disabled a number of domain names and social media accounts selling fake or unauthorised coronavirus products to people in the UK. Among the products already seized are unauthorised anti-viral medication, self-testing kits and 'anti-viral misting sprays'.

Publicity around existing drugs, such as the anti-malarial Chloroquine - currently being tested as potential treatments for coronavirus - has added fuel to the fire, as people try to get hold of these as-yet unproven 'cures'.

The MHRA has also expressed concerns that confusion around the availability and legitimacy of testing kits could provide scammers with more opportunities to tout fake tests.

Coronavirus latest - news and advice from our money, travel and health experts

Prescription drugs for sale online

We've spotted listings on eBay re-selling anti-malarial and anti-viral drugs purported to treat COVID-19, even though they are not licensed to be sold in this way or approved for use for this illness.

Encouragingly, they had been removed from the site by the time we reported them to eBay, in a matter of hours. But we found that new listings had already cropped up again on the site days later (though these have since been taken down as well).

Some anti-malarial medicines are among the drugs being investigated as possible treatments for COVID-19. But the drugs, including Chloroquine, are yet to go through vital clinical trials, and can have severe side effects.

Chloroquine is currently only licensed for sale in the UK by a pharmacist as an anti-malarial treatment. You should not buy it for any other reason or through any other outlet.

We also found several listings for the drug Umifenovir (also known by brand name Arbidol). This medicine is popular in Russia and China for the treatment of influenza. It's not approved for use in the EU, but some unscrupulous sellers are marketing it to UK consumers via channels such as eBay.

eBay told us: 'Sellers are not allowed to list fake medicines, prescription drugs, or supplements containing prescription-strength medication on eBay. Our block filters and security teams prevent thousands of bad listings getting on to the site, and any that do are removed.'

It seems that individuals are using a variety of techniques to get around controls, such as listing items in different product categories (we found some medicines listed as a book), and adding a link on the product image to dedicated sites.

The MHRA encourages anyone who spots posts like these to report them using the MHRA Yellow Card Scheme.

MHRA cracks down on fake coronavirus meds

The crackdown on fake coronavirus medicines is part of a continuing effort by MHRA to stamp out unproven and counterfeit COVID-19 products, in conjunction with other authorities.

Last month, a global effort co-ordinated by Interpol known as 'Operation Pangea' found 2,000 online advertisements related to fake COVID-19 medicines. It also intercepted more than 34,000 fake coronavirus-related products.

In one example, a Brighton man was charged with fraud for shipping 'coronavirus treatment kits' to the US. These consisted of the chemicals potassium thiocyanate and hydrogen peroxide, which users were instructed to rinse their mouths with - which can be very dangerous.

A spokesperson for the MHRA said: 'Patient safety is our highest priority, and we are working with other law-enforcement agencies and with partners across government to combat this type of criminal activity. We are also actively investigating a number of reports of the sale of counterfeit or unlicensed products relating COVID-19.'

This week, the ASA upheld a complaint against the Private Harley Street Clinic for advertising a £350 'Immunobooster' IV drip on its website with the implication it could help prevent COVID-19.

If you see anywhere claiming to have a cure or treatment for coronavirus, don't be tempted. There is currently no proven treatment or cure for COVID-19.

If you're after updates, stick to official trusted sources, such as the WHO and NHS websites.

You can also check our guide to how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus.

COVID-19 home test kits - why you shouldn't trust anyone selling them right now

Don't fall for fake news about coronavirus

Hold your breath, drink lots of water and sunbathe? Some questionable advice on how to prevent COVID-19 has been doing the rounds recently.

Messages with dodgy advice have been spreading rapidly via email and messaging platforms, often supposedly from '[medical staff or researchers] at [hospital, country or academic institution]', in the form of a note or voice memo.

Some we've seen include variants of the same 'advice' from, variously: 'a doctor at St George'sHospital', 'a doctor at Stanford' and 'a doctor treating COVID-19 patients in Japan'.

Fake health messages causing confusion

45% of Which? members we surveyed in April 2020 said they'd heard health advice they thought was incorrect or misleading.

It can be hard to separate fact from fiction, as the unfounded or simply outlandish claims are mixed in with official and sensible advice such as washing your hands.

Some of the claims floating around include:

  • Drinking water will 'flush out' the virus (FALSE) Text from one of the letters going around tells you that drinking water will flush the virus from your throat into the stomach, where gastric acids can destroy it. While drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated is always important, the idea that you can remove a virus this way is unscientific. The virus can find its way into the cells of the respiratory system, as well as transmitting through the nostrils or eyes.
  • Gargling with salt water or disinfectant will kill the virus (FALSE) Advice that was incorrectly attributed to a London hospital says that gargling with disinfectant 'removes the virus before it goes down to the trachea and then to the lungs'. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the virus, which affects the entire respiratory system and doesn't just lurk in the throat.
  • If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, you don't have COVID-19 (FALSE) This claim says that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds without coughing, you're in the clear. It also suggests you do this daily, and that by the time you have the officially recognised symptoms it's 'too late'. This is nonsense. While shortness of breath and coughing are (sometimes) symptoms of COVID-19, the ability to hold your breath for 10 seconds will vary from person to person, for a myriad of reasons. It isn't an indicator that you do or don't have the virus.
  • The virus is killed by the sun (FALSE) Claims that the new coronavirus 'hates the sun', and that therefore sunbathing can prevent you catching it, are unfounded. Given the global spread of the virus so far in both hot and cold climates, there is no evidence for this. We don't yet know if COVID-19 is a seasonal flu.
  • Drinking hot water and avoiding ice or cold drinks will help (FALSE)Working on the same flawed logic of the myth above, some advice recommends constantly drinking hot drinks and avoiding ice or cold drinks. But drinking hot drinks will not change your body temperature. You cannot kill the virus once it's in the body - your immune system just needs to fight it off.

Fake coronavirus advice example

Here's an example of one of the fake messages currently circulating:

Myths like these can be really harmful, because they can fuel anxiety and panic, and mean that people do less of what we know actually works (such as hand washing, social distancing and avoiding touching your face).

Most of the time this advice is passed on by someone who knows someone, often with a few degrees of separation. If you can't verify the provenance of something yourself, then don't share it.

WhatsApp has recently limited the number of chats people can forward messages to, in order to try to curb the spread of these bogus messages.

More facts about false claims can be found on the World Health Organization (WHO) coronavirus myth-busting page.

You can also check out our story about how to spot fake news.

Have you spotted any dodgy health advice about coronavirus? Let us know by emailing healthscams@which.co.uk

Be careful when buying medication online

With many supermarkets and pharmacies in the UK currently running low on stocks of everyday essentials such as painkillers, it may be tempting to try your luck with online sellers - but this could be dangerous.

As part of Operation Pangea, the MHRA also took down 294 websites and removed 1,031 social media adverts online offering non-coronavirus-related medicines illegally.

Painkillers were among the medications seized in the UK, along with antidepressants and weight-loss products.

There's no way of knowing what ingredients are in unlicensed medicines, or what effect they might have on you. They may just not work at all, or they may contain toxic ingredients that could harm your health.

Find out more about how to spot counterfeit medicines and stay safe when buying online.