Alex Jones, the far-right radio host known for his eccentric manner and wild conspiracies, made headlines this week for a drunk-driving arrest, but it wouldn’t be the only notable or most egregious thing he’s managed to do this week. He successfully one-upped himself by trying to sell a toothpaste that he claims is a cure for coronavirus.
He’s not the only person guilty of peddling false cures for COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration has issued several warning letters this week to companies touting cure-all remedies, chiefly in the form of naturopathic and homeopathic healing potions. And, as the misinformation crisis of our digital age has surged, even since recent fake cures such as snake venom for Ebola and mosquito-repellent wristbands for Zika, people are buying into dangerous and even fatal therapies.
Medicinal toothpaste isn’t the first questionable product that Jones’s Infowars Store has promoted; it has a history of flogging “wellness” products aimed at the bodybuilding-apocalypse crossover audience, including Ultimate Fish Oil, Brain Force Plus, and Survival Shield—a thyroid booster “derived from ancient sea salts found thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface” that’s specially formulated for “people concerned about fish or other seafood from the Pacific or Atlantic ocean.”
But it’s the silver-lined toothpaste that landed Jones a cease-and-desist letter from New York attorney general Letitia James, ordering the conspiracy theorist to stop selling the product, of which he said on his radio show: “The patented nanosilver we have, the Pentagon has come out and documented and Homeland Security has said this stuff kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”
It’s not the only silver product that’s been pushed, and even though the ingredient, nanosilver, has some antimicrobial properties, it has been ruled ineffective and unsafe by the FDA. Still, that didn’t stop Missouri-based televangelist Jim Bakker from advertising a nanosilver product on his TV show, which focuses on “Prophecy and End Time News.” His online store pushes emergency survival products, in preparation for those end times.
Bakker, an already convicted fraudster whose theories include that God supports arming teachers and that the 2017 Amtrak train derailment was a warning from above, invited “naturopathic doctor” Sherill Sellman onto his show to push Silver Solution gels, which she claimed can also kill SARS and HIV. “It hasn’t been tested on this strain of the coronavirus, but it’s been tested on other strains,” she said, “and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours, totally eliminate it, kills it, deactivates it.” (The chyron during the segment advertised an $80 Birthday Special for a four-pack of the gels.) The pastor and his production company were swiftly sued by the state of Missouri.
Bakker was one of six recipients of warning letters from the FDA this week to companies “selling fraudulent products,” which the government body said are a threat to public health. The various alternative cures included: essential oils of juniper berry and white thyme; herbs; loose-leaf teas; and, yes, more silver. Convincing marketing arguments on these websites included: “Wellness!! Vital Silver!!! Simple!!! Go on the offense this year against viruses including the Coronavirus – it’s simple!”
“There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” says Joe Simons, chairman of the FTC, which worked with the FDA. “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.”
It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of cures circulating online—some remedies spreading via WhatsApp include drinking boiling tea with cayenne pepper to burn the virus, or taking a hot shower with lemon juice—and to ridicule people who buy into them. It’s hard to stay unamused that the French health ministry put out a tweet reminding people that cocaine does not protect against COVID-19.
But there have already been grave and devastating consequences to this widespread social media misinformation and disinformation. In Iran, where alcohol is not typically consumed, at least 44 people have died, and at least 218 have been hospitalized, after drinking industrial alcohol intended for sanitizing purposes.