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By Lisa M. Campbell, Timothy D. Backstrom and Kelly N. Garson

On April 29, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) to halt the sale of a fraudulent coronavirus (COVID-19) treatment.  The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the court’s decision in an effort to halt the sale of silver products fraudulently claimed to prevent and cure COVID-19.

DOJ filed a civil complaint on April 27, 2020, against defendants Gordon Pedersen of Cedar Hills, Utah and his companies, My Doctor Suggests LLC and GP Silver LLC.  The complaint alleges that defendants began fraudulently promoting and selling various silver products in early 2020 with claims that the silver products would treat and prevent COVID-19.  Some of the alleged false and misleading claims made by defendants include that having silver particles in the bloodstream would block the virus from attaching to cells, that silver would “usher” the virus out of the body, and that silver would destroy all forms of viruses and protect against COVID-19. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement on the Utah case that “FDA will continue to help ensure those who place profits above the public health during the COVID-19 pandemic are stopped” and that FDA is “fully committed to working with the Department of Justice to take appropriate action against those jeopardizing the health of Americans by offering and distributing products with unproven claims to prevent or treat COVID-19.”

The enforcement action will be prosecuted in a coordinated action by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah and the DOJ Civil Division Consumer Protection Branch, with the assistance of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations and Office of the Chief Counsel.  In addition to the TRO, prosecutors obtained a separate court order temporarily freezing the defendants’ assets in order to preserve the court’s ability to grant effective final relief and to maintain the status quo.  A hearing on the DOJ’s request for a preliminary injunction is set for May 12, 2020.  If the case proceeds to trial, the government will need to prove its allegations to obtain a permanent injunction against the defendants. 

In another case, DOJ announced on April 17, 2020, that the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued a TRO to halt the sale of an unapproved and potentially dangerous industrial bleach product being marketed as a “miracle” treatment for COVID-19.  The FDA and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had issued a warning letter to the defendant, Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, on April 8, 2020.  According to the FDA, oral ingestion of the defendant's product called the Miracle Mineral Solution can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and severe dehydration.  The FDA and the FTC have issued nearly 40 separate warning letters in 2020 to companies selling unapproved or misbranded products with claims to prevent or to treat COVID-19.

Commentary

Particulate elemental silver and silver salts can be effective antimicrobial agents, and numerous products containing these active ingredients are currently registered for various antimicrobial uses.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with other federal agencies, are working to ensure that necessary reviews and approvals of legitimate products intended to address COVID 19 are as expeditious as possible.  Products that need these regulatory reviews and approval, but that are marketed without them, are and will likely continue to be a current enforcement focus.


 

By Lisa R. Burchi and Barbara A. Christianson

On March 10, 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that warning letters were sent to seven companies for allegedly selling unapproved products that may violate federal law by making deceptive or scientifically unsupported claims about their ability to treat coronavirus (COVID-19).  The warning letters are the first issued by the Agencies alleging unapproved and/or unsupported claims that products can treat or prevent COVID-19/coronavirus.

The agencies sent the letters to the following companies:

  1. Vital Silver;
  2. Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd.;
  3. N-ergetics;
  4. GuruNanda, LLC;
  5. Vivify Holistic Clinic;
  6. Herbal Amy LLC; and
  7. The Jim Bakker Show.

Each of the seven companies have advertised products as able to treat or prevent COVID-19/coronavirus.  The unapproved products include teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver.

According to FDA, there are no approved vaccines, drugs, or investigational products currently available to treat or prevent the virus.  FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. stated: “The FDA considers the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products to be a threat to the public health.  We have an aggressive surveillance program that routinely monitors online sources for health fraud products, especially during a significant public health issue such as this one.  The FDA’s laws are designed to protect the public health by ensuring, among other things, that drugs are safe and effective for their intended uses.”

The letters state that one or more of the efficacy claims made by the marketers are unsubstantiated and therefore may violate the FTC Act.  The letters advise the recipients to cease immediately making all claims that their products can treat or cure coronavirus. 

FTC Chair Joe Simons stated: “There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus.  What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims.  These warning letters are just the first step.  We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam.”

Commentary

FTC and FDA have pledged to continue to monitor social media, online marketplaces, and incoming complaints to ensure these products do not continue to make such claims.  The letters sent emphasize that, if the false claims do not cease, FTC may seek a federal court injunction and an order requiring money to be refunded to consumers and instructing the recipients to notify the FTC within 48 hours of the specific actions they have taken to address FTC’s concerns.

In addition, the FTC recently issued a new consumer blog post with information about how to identify and avoid coronavirus-related scams.  Coronavirus: Scammers follow the headlines notes that scammers are creating websites to sell bogus products, and using fake emails, texts, and social media posts as a ruse to take consumers’ money and obtain personal information.  It then warns consumers of the “red flags” to monitor when shopping for products related to the virus.

EPA also has been active in this area, announcing the release of a new list of EPA-registered disinfectant products that have qualified for use against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and also announcing its process for expediting review of submissions made by companies that are requesting to add Emerging Viral Pathogen claims to its labels of already-registered surface disinfectants.