Cow urine, bleach, oregano oil: Medical COVID-19 quackery has big ramifications for public health

Cow urine is not a cure for COVID-19. Guzzling water from a fish tank will not protect you from the virus. Neither will getting your spine cracked into place by a chiropractor. 

'Creates this incredibly chaotic information environment at exactly the wrong time'

As anxiety over the global pandemic deepens, health experts are warning Canadians about the increasing prevalence of fake health products claiming to cure or prevent the virus. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

Cow urine is not a cure for COVID-19. Guzzling water from a fish tank will not protect you from the virus. 

With the known global death toll of coronavirus surpassing 50,000 people and no end in sight to its spread, increasingly desperate people are willing to try measures that aren't proven, recommended or even safe.

In recent days, chiropractors were rapped for suggesting their services could help stave off the virus, while Alberta's physicians and pharmacists were dressed down for prescribing unproven medications to colleagues, family members and themselves.

Tim Caulfield, a University of Alberta researcher who has received a $380,000 grant to study misinformation around COVID-19, worries it will distract people from getting factual information from doctors and accredited medical professionals.

"It just creates this incredibly chaotic information environment at exactly the wrong time," said Caulfied, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy.

Last week, Calgary Integrative Medicine, a naturopathic clinic, apologized for claiming it has developed a supplement that could prevent or treat COVID-19.

They're not the only business making misleading claims. 

Health Canada warning

Health Canada issued a warning to Canadians last week about the risks of buying health products — including "drugs, natural health products, homeopathic products and medical devices" — that make false or misleading claims about COVID-19.

In an online statement, Health Canada said it has issued letters to "multiple companies" directing them to immediately remove false claims from their websites and advertising materials. 

The list of products already targeted for false advertising is long and includes medical masks, disinfectants, colloidal silver, plant-based elixirs, hand sanitizers, Chaga mushroom blends, ultraviolet lamps and oregano oil. 

"Selling or advertising health products that make false or misleading claims is illegal," reads the statement. "The department takes this issue seriously and will not hesitate to use all mechanisms and tools at its disposal to stop these activities."

With all this noise out there, the worry is people won't go to those trusted voices.- Tim Caulfield

From blogs that encourage people to drink bleach to prevent infection to false claims touting the efficacy of old malaria drugs, the internet is a trove of dangerous ideas about how to combat the virus, Caulfield said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Conspiracy theories are rampant online, ranging from conjecture that the pandemic is a hoax to the idea that it's a bioweapon. 

Anxieties are running high and "quacks" are preying on those fears, offering sham products, nonsense treatment plans, fake remedies and fraudulent cures. It's a maddening trend for the medical profession, he said. 

"The stuff that's really dominating right now are the fake cures and fake preventative strategies and some of them are really absurd," Caulfield said.

"All of those kinds of things still have no evidence behind them … like the idea that you should be drinking cow urine or the idea that you should be putting essential oils on your anus.

"With all this noise out there, the worry is people won't go to those trusted voices." 

Tim Caulfield looks off camera as he is interviewed. He's sitting in front of shelves lined with books.
University of Alberta researcher Tim Caulfield was recently awarded a $380,000 grant to study misinformation related to coronavirus. (Sam Martin/CBC)

And the outlandish claims around COVID-19 pose a real threat to public health, he said.

An Arizona couple, both in their 60s, poisoned themselves by ingesting chloroquine phosphate, a chemical used to clean home aquariums.

The man died. His wife, who was left in critical condition, said they got the idea from U.S. President Donald Trump, who talked about the potential benefits of chloroquine — an antimalarial drug —  during a televised news conference.

The demand for preventative drugs with little proven benefit prompted a warning from Alberta's chief medical officer.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Wednesday there had been an increase in prescriptions being filled for antibiotics, anti-viral and anti-malarial drugs touted as potential treatment for COVID-19 even though there is no "robust evidence" to show the drugs really work.

Reports from the Alberta College of Pharmacy and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta said the drugs were being prescribed "for office use, personal use and for family members," said Hinshaw.

"These behaviours must stop. These very same medications are used for patients suffering from chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and HIV."

'Pause and think'

Questionable cures and preventative remedies erode trust in the medical system and create a false sense of security — and that could make them less likely to follow health directives around physical distancing and isolation, he said.

Caulfield urges people to think twice about sharing any information on social media.

"One thing that people can do is ask themselves, what is the source of the information? Is there good science behind this or is this just speculation?

"Social media is such a frantic platform. It sort of invites speed, it invites us to look at something quickly and pass it along. Don't do that. Please pause and think."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Ariel Fournier