Recycling Pseudoscience for the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Carson Purnell

Early in 2020, the tone around the Covid-19 pandemic quickly changed from a ‘bad flu’ to a worldwide catastrophe, to be compared to the 1918 flu pandemic’s 50-100 million deaths1. Nobody in the world had specific immunity to this pathogen, and it was clear the novel coronavirus was highly contagious and had already spread throughout the world. Only with hard-won experience have doctors improved treatment protocols to save more patients throughout this pandemic. Research scientists have proven that public measures like masking and physical distancing limit the spread of Covid-192,3 and have developed vaccines that prevent nearly all serious cases. As communities reach high degrees of vaccination, Covid-19 will transition from a pandemic crisis to an endemic public health concern4

Before scientific findings settled and vaccines became available, there simply weren’t any tools available for the general population to combat the deadly plague sweeping through communities. Instead, there were unfounded claims of potential cures. Most people heard about hydroxychloroquine, touted early last year as an effective treatment that turned out to have no benefit and moderate risk5-7. Other claimed cures may have gone beneath your notice, as they would not have appeared on PubMed, clinicaltrials.gov, or even in the wave of rapid publishing of research articles on Covid-19. Not science-based treatments, but ‘alternatives’ sometimes couched in scientific terms lacking evidence and plausible mechanism of action, to be compared to other pseudoscience, like homeopathy and chiropractic, as well as black-market scams offering vaccines. Now that the speed of vaccination is declining and different levels of anti-vaccine sentiment have again become an obstacle, pseudoscientific claims are again gaining attention. Here I will describe two purported treatments for Covid-19, colloidal silver and miracle mineral solution (MMS), that have been sold as cures for health issues for years before the Covid-19 pandemic despite the lack of scientific evidence.

Colloidal silver (and other colloidal metals)

Colloids are materials, usually liquids, where one substance is evenly distributed within another as tiny particles, without being dissolved. Colloids never settle or precipitate, and may be impossible to filter or separate by normal means. Metal colloids can be generated with specific particle sizes, and nanoparticles smaller than 100nm can be freely suspended in pure water or other liquids. The resulting color is dependent on particle size and is entirely different from the metal’s bulk color. These properties of colloids have been used in pigments and technical tools8. Gold colloids have a particularly wide range of pink, red, and blue hues (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Gold colloids differ in color from gold metal or gold solution. Photo Credit: N-track.

Beyond their interesting color variety, colloidal nanoparticles are increasingly relevant in multiple scientific fields. For decades, colloidal metals have been used in electron microscopy to provide contrast in density-based images9, which I have used in my own experiments. Nanoscience applications in electronics and optics have also used colloidal nanoparticles to investigate nanoscale phenomena10, and in biomedicine, nanoparticles are an emerging delivery system for therapeutic drugs and biologics, especially for cancer11. In contrast to this research, there are many online marketplaces that sell colloids, mostly colloidal silver, as a general health improver and even cure. All available research instead indicates the opposite, and the NIH and FDA clearly warn that colloidal silver cannot treat any disease, but can cause a permanent skin discoloration called argyria (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Paul Karason, who developed argyria after long-term consumption of silver products. Photo Credit: Today.com.

Lacking actual evidence of effectiveness, colloid sellers try to cloak themselves in the style of science to make up for lack of substance. Providing highly technical information like bioavailability graphs and material safety data sheets as the company Purest Colloids does creates a feeling of transparency and honesty as convincing evidence does not exist. Purest Colloids also makes use of a standard marketing technique to improve their stature by pointing out that many competitors sell ionic solutions labeled as colloids. In a recent investigation into silver colloids, it was found that Purest Colloids indeed sells real colloids, while most advertised colloids were merely solutions of ionic silver12. These tactics create a facade of reliability without scientific rigor. To get around FDA regulations, these companies use generic language that the FDA does not regulate, like “boosts the immune system” and “supports healthy metabolism”. 

Different from sellers that cloak themselves in science, there are also many that leverage older traditions that view silver and other precious metals as magical, protecting against disease and curses13. One of the most wide-reaching such magical thinkers is Jim Bakker, a televangelist who spends a great deal of time hawking overpriced doomsday survival supplies in addition to colloidal silver as a cure for all ailments, including Covid-19. Because of these explicit fraudulent claims, he has been sued by two states for continuing to advertise and sell these products, despite warning letters from the FDA.

Sometimes both mystical appeals and pseudoscientific disguises are used together, but regardless of strategy colloids are sold on a wide range of online marketplaces, including Amazon.com. As colloids are relatively simple to manufacture, colloid supply is difficult to police and the relatively low risks compared to other scams often allows colloid treatments to avoid regulatory intervention unless there are direct fraudulent claims that fall under FDA purview.

Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS)

An example of a different kind of pseudoscience, MMS was popularized in 2006 by Jim Humble through his book promoting MMS by claiming it cures cancer, malaria, Lyme disease, and even HIV/AIDS. Humble founded the Genesis II Church to sell MMS directly and avoid regulatory intervention, labeling MMS as a sacrament of his non-religious church. He has never presented evidence for these health claims, and has lied about the Red Cross letting him perform experiments on malaria patients, which the Red Cross has refuted. More recently, MMS has been in the news after claims of curing autism, resulting in a large number of poisoned children, until messaging from autism advocacy groups reduced its use. 

MMS and its producers are universally condemned by all medical and patient advocacy groups because MMS is simply chlorine dioxide, an industrial bleach – not a medical product (Figure 3). MMS is not safe for human contact, being both toxic and caustic to the digestive system when consumed. There is no evidence that MMS has any benefit, and there never will be such evidence because an experiment that requires administering bleach is intensely unethical. In one final cruelty, purveyors of MMS formed insular subgroups to discuss how to avoid the attention of child protective services while force-feeding MMS to children, and insisting that the severe symptoms are signs that MMS is working and needs to continue being administered. 

Figure 3: MMS is bleach. Photo Credit: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

There was no hesitation last year for MMS sellers to prominently place claims of curing Covid-19 on their websites, leading to an FDA warning letter by April 2020. When the warning was ignored in favor of making profit, the Justice Department stepped in and placed an injunction on MMS sales in the US, leading to the arrest and recent indictment of major suppliers of MMS. While overdue, this reaction from the FDA and courts may help stop many future MMS poisonings.

Thankfully, there are a number of ways to spot pseudoscience and scams like these that don’t require a background in biomedical fields or extensive data dives. Both colloids and MMS have been hawked during every health-related news event for as long as they have existed – HIV/AIDS, cancer, and the original SARS. If colloids or MMS were effective at treating any of these illnesses, it would not have gone unnoticed. Remember that treatments claiming to be a panacea that treat or cure a wide range of conditions is biologically impossible and the sole territory of scams and pseudoscience. Both colloids and MMS come down to recycling: the same product being used again and again for new situations. If you can trace the life cycle of the product, you can likely find its true nature, either as a legitimate product with solid evidence that began in a lab, or a scam that has been shuffled across many different unreliable websites without any credence from scientific bodies. With knowledge of these pseudoscientific tactics and awareness of recycling scams, you will be less susceptible to fallacious arguments and hopefully you will be able to point out scams to your neighbors as well.


References

1.         Spreeuwenberg P, Kroneman M, Paget J. Reassessing the Global Mortality Burden of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Am J Epidemiol.2018;187(12):2561-2567.

2.         Kwon S, Joshi AD, Lo CH, et al. Association of social distancing and masking with risk of COVID-19. medRxiv.2020.

3.         Ju JTJ, Boisvert LN, Zuo YY. Face masks against COVID-19: Standards, efficacy, testing and decontamination methods. Adv Colloid Interface Sci.2021;292:102435.

4.         Torjesen I. Covid-19 will become endemic but with decreased potency over time, scientists believe. BMJ.2021;372:n494.

5.         Maraolo AE, Grossi A. Safety of hydroxychloroquine for treatment or prevention of SARS-CoV-2 infection: A rapid systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Immun Inflamm Dis.2021;9(1):31-36.

6.         Shetty RM, Namachivayam A. Evidence for Chloroquine/Hydroxychloroquine in the Treatment of COVID-19. Indian J Crit Care Med.2021;25(4):441-452.

7.         Ader F, Peiffer-Smadja N, Poissy J, et al. An open-label randomized, controlled trial of the effect of lopinavir/ritonavir, lopinavir/ritonavir plus IFN-β-1a and hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Clin Microbiol Infect.2021.

8.         Kerker M. The optics of colloidal silver: something old and something new. Journal of Colloid and Interface Science.1985;105:297-314.

9.         Horisberger M, Rosset J. Colloidal gold, a useful marker for transmission and scanning electron microscopy. J Histochem Cytochem.1977;25(4):295-305.

10.       Dreaden EC, Alkilany AM, Huang X, Murphy CJ, El-Sayed MA. The golden age: gold nanoparticles for biomedicine. Chem Soc Rev.2012;41(7):2740-2779.

11.       Boisselier E, Astruc D. Gold nanoparticles in nanomedicine: preparations, imaging, diagnostics, therapies and toxicity. Chem Soc Rev.2009;38(6):1759-1782.

12.       Kumar A, Goia DV. Comparative Analysis of Commercial Colloidal Silver Products. Int J Nanomedicine.2020;15:10425-10434.

13.       Lamb GF. Magic, witchcraft, and the occult. Newton Abbot Eng. New York: David and Charles ; Hippocrene Books; 1977.

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