Coronavirus and Supplement Industry “Immune System” Marketing
As with anything, logical and balanced responses, as well as declarations, are incredibly rare. Even when they’re made, they’re drowned out by much louder and attention-grabbing extremes on either side. We’re seeing this now with the novel Coronavirus, officially named COVID-19. The spread of COVID-19 is very serious, despite the messaging from those downplaying it, but it falls way short of the mass hysteria we are seeing globally.
The virus resulting in COVID-19 is closely related to that which caused SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), a coronavirus that had a serious impact 17-18 years ago. It is also related to the common cold, as the common cold has over 200 virus strains implicated, including many coronaviruses. What makes COVID-19 a serious threat, is the rapid spread and transmission and the seemingly high mortality rate which is now reported as over 3.5%. This number is likely not accurate, as screening for the virus is not widespread, and many patients seem to be asymptomatic. We do not yet know how many carriers of the virus are asymptomatic, but from one cruise, twelve asymptomatic patients were found following one woman showing symptoms of the disease. This is significant in the sense that asymptomatic carriers can shed the virus and transit COVID-19, but conversely brings into question the accuracy of the mortality rate.
How high is the mortality rate, actually? Is it 3.5%? 0.35%? Lower? If it is the latter, with death rates likely more accurate in the aged population, but much lower in younger people, we need to pause for many considerations. For instance, influenza A and b, with over 10,000 infant cases registered since the start of 2020 in the USA and 136 pediatric deaths as of early March this flu season, a drop in the bucket compared to the reported 15 million cases estimate, 140,000 hospitalizations, and 8,200 deaths attributed to the flu in the USA this season. Even if the lowest estimates of overall mortality are true, it is still a massive risk to those compromised such as the elderly, and young people may be spreading the virus without even knowing it.
There are a few reasons to be concerned. First, we do not yet have a vaccine for COVID-19 and a suitable one may be a year or more away. Second, we don’t have great data yet on the best treatments to use in treating COVID-19. Third, our hospitals and healthcare systems, both in the USA and Canada, are already overwhelmed with this year’s flu strain, and as such, may be overburdened and incapable of dealing with a massive influx of COVID-19 patients. COVID-19 isn’t an “instead of” our current threats, such as the flu, but rather an “in addition to”. The unknown is always a more frightening prospect, especially when it has the potential to get much worse before it gets better. This is why governments are recommending people stay away from large gatherings, and to take precautions and self-quarantine. It is about reducing the acute stress to our hospitals.
What we shouldn’t do is panic, especially in the way many currently are. Grocery stores are selling out of necessities, like toilet paper, while others have been hoarding hand sanitizer and face masks for weeks. Most healthy people don’t need face masks, which are best used to catch virus-containing droplets that may spread from infected individuals when they sneeze or cough. Hoarding hand sanitizers only means that others may not be able to buy and use it, which could further contribute to the spread of the virus. Additionally, many stores have been overwhelmed by people panicking and fighting over supplies, ironically creating packed stores that are much more susceptible to a viral transmission. This isn’t even touching on the impact hoarding has on low-income individuals who barely afford necessities or the economic impact that the hysteria has had on the economy. The only positive is that many employers are allowing their staff to work from home, something that will have a beneficial environmental impact, and something that a lot of companies should consider as a full-time practice. In addition, social distancing has been promoted to prevent the spread of the disease, and large gatherings and events have been canceled or post-posted as precautionary methods.
Many charlatans are taking advantage of this hysteria. Companies selling Vitamin C are at the forefront after it was announced that there are clinical trials registered in Wuhan for the treatment of Coronavirus with Vitamin C. There are a few very important considerations:
- These trials are using intravenous Vitamin C, as high as 24 g per day for the first week. This is hundreds of times what many Vitamin C containing products have, and 24x the bulk of the highest dose oral Vitamin C tablets on the supplement market. Additionally, intravenous therapy differs from oral consumption.
- These are simply registered trials that have not yet happened yet, and there is no evidence it will work. It is beyond unethical for marketers to tout these registered trials as a reason to megadose on Vitamin C.
- These trials are to be conducted on people who have been tested positive for COVID-19, NOT healthy individuals for the prevention of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, this could have been easily anticipated, bringing us to one of the most bizarre, unethical and outlandish claims many within the supplement and natural industry make:
“Strengthening Your Immune System”
One of the most common and asinine claims from supplement marketers is that their products “boost” or “strengthen” your immune system. In a quite amusing case of a mix of extreme irony and subsequent poetic justice, there was a massive spike in e-mail newsletters and marketing pushes for supplements “boosting immunity” after the Coronavirus fears began, followed by mass hysteria from many companies leading to the cancellation of the years biggest tradeshow, Expo West. Many of the very companies advertising their products to strengthen immunity, were the ones screaming that going on with the trade show would put their employees, families, and their own lives at risk. I guess they don’t believe in their own marketing? The cancellation happened in the final hours before the Expo was set to begin, against the advice of the City of Anaheim, local and state health authorities, and the wishes of the event organizer. It was 100% industry-driven, by many of the same people and companies that tout their products for “strengthening immunity”. Poetic justice? The industry, not the event organizer, is footing the bill of the cancellation, as the event organizer New Hope is not giving out refunds other than a $5m relief fund for small emerging brands. Many “innocent” brands and individuals were caught in the cancellation and stand to lose (myself included). Likely the “guilty” brands won’t even see the irony in what happened. I can best describe much of the prevailing philosophy in these brands as hysteria-driven doublethink, motivated by politics and philosophy, rather than logic or science. As an aside, now that we know that COVID-19 has been rapidly spreading in the USA for weeks or more, undetected, the cancellation was likely a good thing- in hindsight. The motivations of many in the industry are what is questionable.
Would Strengthening Your Immune Response be a GOOD Thing?
Irony aside, is there even any benefit to the claim, even if it were true, that certain products will strengthen or boost your immune response? I’d go as far as to say the opposite is true, in reality, for two very important reasons.
- Your immune response, while fighting off a pathogen, is what leads to common side effects, such as congestion, coughing, and systemic acute inflammation (which can lead to longer-term damages), which are the body’s attempts to get rid of the bacteria or viral particles. A “stronger” immune response may mean you feel sicker as you fight off the same damage. This is assuming that the person is not immunocompromised or immunodeficient. By nature, supplements can’t market to these people and overwhelmingly have no or limited evidence that these products would help them. This “benefit” is being marketed to otherwise healthy people that wouldn’t want to be “boosting” or “strengthening” their immune response.
- Our bodies have T cells, a type of white blood cell, which develops in the thymus and plays a central role in the immune response. Imagine these malleable T cells, called “naïve” T Cells as our bodies army or national guard that protects us against invading threats. These immune cells originate as precursor cells, derived from bone marrow, and develop into several distinct types of T cells, each with specialized roles, once they have migrated to the thymus gland. For example, some T cells are “trained” to broadly recognise and fight off pathogens (cytotoxic T cells), while some become “specialized” and memorize a previous intrusion (memory T cells) so that the immune response can occur rapidly if the same pathogen reappears. This is a very basic of how immunity works, and the basis for how and why vaccines are effective. We essentially “strengthen” our immune response with vaccines by preparing T cells using a low dose or a dead version of the pathogen so that the immune system can stop a threat faster when it appears again.
You may be thinking “great, I want to shorten the amount I am sick”, and sure, that sounds good... for now.
T cells are one of the major ways we fight off new threats and attacking these cells is one of the reasons why viruses such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) can shorten lifespan. HIV specifically targets T cells and other white blood cells, which over time causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), where failure of the immune system allows life-threatening infections to thrive, like the common cold, leading to death. Even in the absence of a persistent and devastating virus, those with autoimmune diseases, those taking immunosuppressant medication, newborns and the elderly are immunocompromised, meaning their immune systems are not quite as robust as the healthy population. This is why these individuals are at a much higher risk of dying from an illness that younger, healthier people may not even notice they have. This is also the main reason why the flu vaccine is highly recommended for the elderly.
- From puberty onwards, something called thymus involution occurs, which is the gradual shrinking of our thymus leading to less and less naïve T cells. With every pathogenic threat, naïve T cells migrate to the lymph nodes and become trained to fight it. As we age, we produce fewer naïve T cells and they can become more difficult to train against new threats. As such, a new threat can be catastrophic when we cannot mount an appropriate immune response and defeat the pathogen. Why would we want to recklessly deplete our naïve T cells or army reserves? That would be, effectively, consciously deciding to shorten our health and lifespan to slightly shorten a short and slight inconvenience, all the while making that very inconvenience MORE inconvenient (remember, the stronger response leads to more symptoms). Sounds insane, and thankfully, the products making these claims don’t actually do what they imply.
Hydrogen and Immune Response?
One of the motivating factors for me to write this article is the dozens upon dozens of messages I have received asking me for “research showing hydrogen could help against COVID-19”, from people assuming that it must exist, or e-mails and messages thanking me for the tablets as hydrogen water will keep them “protected from the Coronavirus”. I will state, emphatically, that there is no evidence and no logical argument for molecular hydrogen preventing the transmission of COVID-19. Do not believe anyone who tells you this and be wary of any marketers or friends that make the claim. There are a LOT of reasons to supplement with molecular hydrogen as I write about, but this is 100%, beyond any doubt, NOT one of them.
Where are people getting this from, aside from the widespread and unfortunate belief that molecular hydrogen is some sort of magical panacea? Well, hydrogen does have some very limited evidence regarding the attenuation of side effects of bacterial threats, artificially crafted sickness responses in mice, and the potential to assist in radiation-induced immunocompromised models. I’ll repeat, VERY early evidence. In one human study patients with chronic hepatitis B saw improvements in oxidative stress, but measurements of viral load, while trending down, were not statistically significant. These results have also not been replicated. In my opinion, the most interesting study demonstrated that hydrogen water may be able to regulate the immune response through the regulation of inflammation and hypothermia. Again, this is a single paper in rats, not in humans.
None of this is great evidence for hydrogen protecting against a very specific virus, either before or after you have it. The “best” thing I could say, is that if you are already sick, and already following what your doctor or local health authorities have recommended, hydrogen probably won’t hurt. It might help, key emphasis on the might, and I say that based on its interesting ability to protect against stress which I have written about before. In short, this is one thing that hydrogen really doesn’t have good evidence for. If you’re afraid of coming down with COVID-19, you’re much better served washing your hands regularly, using disinfectant hand sanitizers, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding large crowds. For COVID-19 fears, save your money on hydrogen... If you’re going to buy hydrogen water, buy it for all the other reasons.
Above all, stay sane out there. Call bullshit on supplements advising you they’ll support or boost your immune system, and report ones making claims of curing it to the FDA. The FDA has already acted on numerous companies, particularly those selling colloidal silver to treat or prevent COVID-19. and think about the potential ramifications of your actions, both over and under reacting to the situation.