COVID-19 Showcases the Supplement Scam
2020 was the year of COVID-19. As cases started to skyrocket earlier this spring, sales of dietary supplements ascended alongside. With no treatments yet in sight, worried consumers were eager to imbibe, consume, and swallow all sorts of chemical compounds purported to ward off the coronavirus. Hucksters like InfoWars's Alex Jones were eager to sell them. Vitamin C, Vitamin D, zinc, colloidal silver, and quercetin were a few of the supplements touted. At the time, none had good evidence to support their effectiveness... and they still don't. Though more than nine months have passed since the coronavirus first stormed the globe, months in which three remarkable vaccines have been designed, tested, manufactured, and approved for use, nobody has yet published the results of a trial analyzing whether or not these supplements actually prevent or treat COVID-19. In dozens of articles, researchers have glowingly mused at their potential, but no scientist has actually bothered to see if the hype is genuine.
Such is the modus operandi of the $30+ billion supplement industry: smoke and mirrors, pomp and circumstance, all style and no substance. Proponents cite all sorts of indirect evidence that various compounds will improve one's health, but rarely do the work to test them. That's because when the studies are performed, they almost always end up negative. Systematic reviews of published research suggest that the vast majority of dietary supplements are ineffective, and the few that may be effective offer paltry benefits.
So with the odds stacked against supplements, there's little reason for proponents to actually scrutinize them, especially considering that current regulations are so lax. According to federal laws, supplements are not required to demonstrate efficacy before being marketed, yet they can still make all sorts of bold claims without that evidence. Moreover, there's little to no oversight of manufacturing, so many supplements don't even contain the ingredients on their labels, and a few are actually contaminated with potentially harmful levels of lead and arsenic. Dietary supplements must only have a reasonable expectation of safety to be sold. And once in the hands of consumers, the burden of proof to show any potential harm rests with the FDA, and that can be very difficult.
"The dietary supplement system relies on voluntary reports of adverse reactions from the makers of herbal products," The Hoover Institution reported. "This is rather like the IRS asking taxpayers to voluntarily provide information on their own underreporting of income."
Consumer Reports found that only about 2 percent of adverse events possibly related to dietary supplements each year are ever reported to the FDA.
This status quo has resulted in numerous deaths over the years directly linked to supplement use. Perhaps the worst offender over the years is the compound ephedra, which has been linked to tens of thousands of adverse health events, hundreds of severe liver injuries, as well as a number of deaths. Despite the compound's transparent harm, it took the FDA seven years to ban it. Even without ephedra on the market, supplements send an estimated 23,000 people to the emergency room each year.
Luckily, the dietary supplements being advocated to combat COVID-19 – particularly Vitamin D, Vitamin C, and zinc – are generally safe at recommended doses. Still, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic, "these supplements are unlikely to affect your immune function or prevent you from getting sick." In essence, they equate to covering yourself in a slim, silky blanket to ward off subzero temperatures. They may bring comfort, but they won't prevent you from freezing... or dying from COVID-19.