By Christine Hauser and
The Food and Drug Administration said on Monday that it had warned seven companies to stop selling products that claim to cure or prevent the coronavirus, saying such products were a threat to public health because they might prompt consumers to stop or delay appropriate medical treatment.
It was the first time that the agency, along with the Federal Trade Commission, had issued warning letters for unapproved products related to the coronavirus, which causes the illness Covid-19.
The companies were asked to describe within 24 hours what they had done to correct the violations, or be subjected to legal action such as seizures or injunctions, the statement said. A task force had already worked with retailers and online marketplaces “to remove more than three dozen listings of fraudulent Covid-19 products,” it added.
“There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” Joe Simons, the chairman of the trade commission, said in the statement. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims.”
There are at least 545 cases of Covid-19 in the United States. California, New York, Oregon and Washington State have all declared emergencies over the spread of the virus, and at least 22 people have died from it in the United States. The F.D.A. and F.T.C. statement noted that there were no vaccines or drugs approved to treat the coronavirus.
N-Ergetics, a company based in Oklahoma that sells colloidal silver, said in a statement that it was aware of the warning letter from the F.D.A., and it disputed the agency’s assertions.
“We make no claims of any products for the ability to prevent, treat or cure human disease,” the statement said. “Nothing we offer for sale is intended to mitigate, prevent, treat or diagnose or cure Covid-19 in people.”
Amy Weidner, of Herbal Amy in Nampa, Idaho, said in an email that the company had removed a quote from one of its descriptions of an herbal product to comply with the warning letter. Her website links to products for coronavirus costing more than $100.
“Because it’s an all-natural herbal product, the F.D.A. does not want me to quote anyone saying anything in the product description that would insinuate that it treats, mitigates or cures any diseases,” she said.
GuruNanda is a California-based essential oils company named for its founder, Puneet Nanda, a self-described “entrepreneur-turned-yogi.” In an email, Megan Brown Bennett, a spokeswoman for GuruNanda, said that after the company became aware of the warning letter, it “immediately removed” any information related to treatment or prevention of Covid-19 and the coronavirus.
“GuruNanda, at all times, strives to be compliant with the law and will continue to work with the F.D.A. and the F.T.C. to ensure compliance with the applicable laws and regulations,” she said.
In an email, Jennifer Hickman, the owner of Vital Silver in Florida, said she was “unaware that my company was violating FDA standards, or that any of the statements could be considered fraudulent.” She added that she had removed all statements concerning Covid-19 from the company’s website and social media.
The other companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Jim Bakker Show broadcasts an hourlong show of the same name, hosted by the televangelists Jim and Lori Bakker. In 1989, Mr. Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison and fined $500,000 for fraud in connection with his TV ministry, and he ultimately served five years in prison and a halfway house.
Also on Monday, the Justice Department warned makers of health care products not to use the coronavirus outbreak to illegally profit from the sale of face masks, sterile gloves and other items.
“The Department of Justice stands ready to make sure that bad actors do not take advantage of emergency response efforts, health care providers or the American people during this crucial time,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement.
The department said it would criminally prosecute anyone who violated antitrust laws, and pledged to hold accountable any companies that colluded to fix prices on health care products.
Health authorities around the world have struggled to contain not only the outbreak but also the misinformation about it quickly spreading around the internet. The World Health Organization has partnered with tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, to combat falsehoods and misleading information about the coronavirus.
Online searches, however, often still yield results of holistic medicines purported to affect the virus, such as elderberries, oregano oil and frankincense. Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, warned that products claiming to prevent or cure the coronavirus could be more harmful than helpful.
“The bottom line is that there are so many false claims,” he said. “And they seem to proliferate as fast as the illness.”
The National Institutes of Health has also cautioned that “alternative” treatments are ineffective against Covid-19.
High doses of vitamins A, C and D also do nothing to protect from the virus, Dr. Glatter said.
“Vitamin A and D in high quantities can be toxic to the kidney and liver,” he said. Vitamin C is not recommended in large doses, as it could affect hydration. Diet modification does not work either, he added.
Instead, he said, it is more important to wash your hands and avoid touching your face, and to maintain healthy habits such as getting a good amount of rest, hydrating and eating fruits and vegetables.