Companies with experience in the "at-home" testing market began announcing in mid-March that they would be offering direct-to-consumer test kits for COVID-19.
With panic running high and tests at hospitals and doctors' offices hard to come by, the appeal was obvious.
The kits were touted as a way for consumers to manage this difficult situation themselves. No struggle to see the doctor. No calls to the health department. No waiting in line at a drive-thru test site. Instead, consumers could collect their own samples, by either swabbing the throat or cheek or spitting into a cup. The samples would then be mailed back to the companies' partner laboratories, which would test for the coronavirus. Prices ranged from $135 to $181.
But criticism was swift. At-home tests could be skimming the resources needed for lab-based tests. There is also the possibility of people collecting their samples incorrectly and questions about follow-up care.
Not to mention the risk of inaccurate results.
The Food and Drug Administration responded with a March 20 press release, which stated that the FDA had not authorized any test "that is available to purchase for testing yourself at home for COVID-19."
At least four companies, Nurx, EverlyWell, Forward and Carbon Health, have since said they halted sales — though two of the companies still have information about the tests on their websites as of Monday afternoon.
While these companies are legitimate and have a track record for at-home testing and providing medical care, there may be others out there hawking products that do not.
"Some are coming from reputable places and some are not, and that's hard for the average consumer to tell," said Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.
"A lot of bunk, junk and crank stuff"
For example, a number of questionable internet reports related to coronavirus tests, vaccines and "miracle" cures already are circulating on social media.
And for scared consumers, it may be difficult to tell the difference. "There's a lot of bunk, junk and crank stuff out there," said Arthur Caplan, founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
The FDA said, for instance, in its March 20 release that it "is beginning to see unauthorized fraudulent test kits that are being marketed to test for COVID-19 in the home."
One key sign that an at-home kit is a sham is that it will offer consumers an almost immediate test result. "That would not be possible," said Topol.
Websites touting miracle cures and preventatives ― herbs, teas, essential oils, tinctures and colloidal silver — are prevalent.
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— Dr. Joseph Mercola (@mercola) March 23, 2020
QAnon conspiracy theorists on YouTube and Twitter have irresponsibly told viewers to buy and drink "Miracle Mineral Solution," an industrial bleach product, to ward off the coronavirus. Facebook and Instagram posts claim that marijuana, cocaine or vitamin C can kill or prevent the coronavirus. Salespeople are offering fake N95 masks.
To be clear, the FDA said in 1999 that any products containing colloidal silver are not "safe or effective," and the National Institutes of Health has said that there are no known benefits to ingesting silver supplements and that it can cause serious side effects. The FDA also warned consumers in 2019 not to buy or ingest "Miracle Mineral Solution" because it can cause severe health effects.
The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission jointly issued warning letters on March 9 to seven companies for selling "products that fraudulently claim to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19."
One of the warning letters was issued to Jim Bakker, a prominent televangelist, who allowed a guest to promote colloidal silver as a cure for COVID-19, and then sold it during a Feb. 12 broadcast of "The Jim Bakker Show." The state of Missouri has since filed a lawsuit against Bakker for "falsely promising to consumers that Silver Solution can cure, eliminate, kill or deactivate coronavirus."
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— #NATIONALISM (@BeingNationali1) February 8, 2020
Conservative radio host Alex Jones received a cease-and-desist letter March 12 from the New York attorney general's office for selling products on his website that contain colloidal silver and claim to treat or cure coronavirus infections.
"There is nothing homeopathic or nutritional that can help you with the virus," said Caplan. "The idea that people are floating some kind of diagnostic solution or magic or therapy on the internet, it's all total crap."
There have also been reports of consumers buying up a fish tank cleaner on eBay that has the same active ingredient as the antimalarial drug chloroquine, which President Donald Trump touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19. An Arizona man recently died after ingesting the fish tank additive, thinking it would prevent the coronavirus.
In an update issued March 24, the FDA said it was aware of people buying the fish tank cleaning product and advised consumers: "Don't take any form of chloroquine unless it has been prescribed for you by your health care provider and obtained from legitimate sources."
On March 20, the Department of Justice announced that Attorney General William Barr had asked all U.S. attorneys "to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of Coronavirus-related fraud schemes."
The DOJ detailed its first enforcement action on March 22 for a COVID-19 fraud against a website called "coronavirusmedicalkit.com," which claimed to sell coronavirus vaccine kits from the World Health Organization.
Despite all the false promises from these products, it's important for consumers to remember that there is no FDA-approved treatment or vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
And the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to practice social distancing and wash your hands, public health experts say.
Regaining a sense of control is a motivator
Consumers may be motivated to buy these types of items because they are trying to regain control in an uncertain situation, explained April Thames, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
"People have this heightened anxiety, and they are willing to try anything out there that's a possible treatment or cure," said Thames. It creates an opening for scam artists "to market products that sound like they are effective."
Caplan's ultimate advice to consumers who see coronavirus-related products on the internet?
"Anything online, ignore it."