The federal government has repeatedly warned Americans about scammers trying to sell dietary supplements as a remedy for COVID-19 when medical experts say supplements are neither safe nor effective for treating the disease.
But if consumers type "coronavirus supplement" or "COVID supplement" into the search bar at Amazon.com, not only does the online retailer auto-complete the search, it serves up pages and pages of supplements without any warning about the scientific evidence.
And though the supplements may not directly claim to treat COVID-19, NPR has found more than 100 supplements listed for sale on Amazon that make unsubstantiated and potentially illegal claims that they can fight viruses. They include products sold by a company recently sued by the Department of Justice over fraud allegations related to COVID-19.
The products were sold by third parties, rather than Amazon, though the company receives a cut of the sales. Amazon also designated several of the products "Amazon's Choice," which "recommends highly rated, well-priced products," according to the company.
Amazon says that safety is a "top priority" and that its "dedicated global team of compliance specialists" use sophisticated technology to block unsafe and illegal products from being sold on its marketplace. When those systems fail to catch offending products, Amazon says it takes swift action as soon as it hears from concerned consumer groups or unhappy customers. "When we receive these reports, we move quickly to protect customers, remove unsafe products from our store, and investigate," Amazon insists.
Yet when Amazon was alerted to the products making unsubstantiated claims — first by a public health watchdog group and later by NPR — the company waited several weeks before removing them from its site.
Though the products on Amazon do not specifically claim to treat COVID-19, public health experts have raised concerns that Amazon's failure to police the site for illegal claims may put Americans at greater risk during the pandemic.
"Besides being a waste of money," said Dr. Peter Lurie, a former associate commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration and the president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, the public health watchdog that first alerted Amazon to the problem, "these products may harm consumers if they decide to opt for a supplement in favor of the things we know that actually help, like hand washing, maintaining social distance, wearing personal protective equipment or seeking real medical treatment when sick."
A slow response despite pledges to move quickly
In June, CSPI found 46 products sold on Amazon that claimed they could fight viruses.
Among those products: an elderberry supplement claiming to have "antiviral properties," a "tincture" with echinacea and garlic labeled "virus care," and a colloidal silver liquid that purported to be "effective against" viruses. (The companies that sold those supplements did not respond to messages from NPR.)
On June 4, CSPI sent its findings to Amazon, along with the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission, and asked Amazon to stop selling the products and recommended that the company "create a system that better identifies and removes future misbranded and unsafe supplements."
But the product listings remained up on Amazon's website until June 24, only coming down after NPR made three separate inquiries of the company over several days.
"We've reviewed the products in question, removed those that violate our policies, and are taking action against the bad actors who listed them," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson said the company had implemented tools to scan for inaccurate and misleading statements on the site related to the pandemic, and said those efforts had "blocked more than 6.5 million products."
But subsequently, NPR found more than 100 other products making similar claims and sent those listings to Amazon. As of this publication, most of those products remain available on Amazon's marketplace.
On its site, Amazon has also hosted video advertising and colloidal silver products from the company My Doctor Suggests LLC. Federal prosecutors sued that company over alleged fraud related to COVID-19 in April and obtained a court order blocking the company from claiming its products could prevent or treat any disease.
In late June, the company's products were available on Amazon and still marketed as "destroying bacteria, viruses and yeast."
After inquiries from NPR, the advertising and language about viruses were removed.
"We are working with My Doctor Suggests LLC to ensure compliance with the court order, and we anticipate their prompt cooperation," U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said in a statement.
Attorneys for My Doctor Suggests said the company was cooperating with the government and blamed the offending marketing language on a "breakdown in communication."
"After receiving notice of this issue," attorney Eric Benson said, "the company immediately ceased its operations to ensure all content is removed in compliance with the court's order."
Given the stakes of the global pandemic, misinformation about purported treatments for viruses is "very serious and should be taken extremely seriously by the executives at Amazon," said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on dietary supplements.
"I have personally seen people unable to breathe because of COVID-19," said Cohen, who has spent the last several months treating patients for the virus that causes the disease.
''Half Walmart, half eBay''
Cohen and other experts blame the loose regulations of dietary supplements for the proliferation of false and illegal claims.
"The underlying problem is how under-regulated these products are in the first place," said Lurie of CSPI.
Dietary supplements do not need approval from the FDA before hitting the market. In fact, they do not even need to register with the government at all.
In general, the FDA says, a manufacturer "does not have to provide FDA with the evidence it relies on to substantiate safety or effectiveness before or after it markets its products."
As a result, Lurie said, the supplement market is like the "Wild West," and "the small dietary supplement office at FDA can't possibly keep up."
Rachel Johnson Greer, a former Amazon employee who now consults for third-party sellers, said the company is less proactive about policing its marketplace if the federal government isn't aggressively enforcing the law.
"If the agencies don't have enough people to evaluate a product, no one's looking at it," she said. "And consumers should know that."
Johnson Greer said customers need to know that the majority of the products currently sold on Amazon are not sold by Amazon, but by sellers that can range from major companies to tiny operations run out of someone's garage.
"It's half Walmart, half eBay, and you can't tell which is which," Johnson Greer said.
Johnson Greer said Amazon uses sophisticated technology, but ultimately that technology is only as effective as the people programming it. And, in her experience, Amazon employees often lack expertise in complicated consumer safety regulations.
A Wall Street Journal investigation last year found thousands of products on Amazon that were declared unsafe by federal agencies. In 2018, Amazon reached a $1.2 million settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency over sales of illegal pesticides.
NPR also contacted the FTC and the FDA for this story. The FTC did not respond. In a statement, a spokesperson for the FDA said the agency was reviewing reports of illegal marketing claims on Amazon and "continues to actively monitor the marketplace and take action to protect consumers from fraudulent products being peddled by bad actors."
In response to NPR's reporting, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement, "Amazon is inexcusably turning a blind eye to scammers peddling fake antiviral products on its platform."
Blumenthal, who has advocated tougher federal scrutiny of dietary supplements, went on, "Amazon has shown during this crisis a willful pattern of negligence and malaise in the face of rampant and illegal conduct by its sellers – conduct that poses profound dangers to consumers."
Blumenthal said his office would continue to pressure those agencies, saying they "must urgently step in with their full authority to protect the public."
If you have any information about possible COVID-19 scams, you can contact NPR's Tom Dreisbach at firstname.lastname@example.org
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Amazon says that product safety is a top priority and that it uses sophisticated technology to make sure everything sold on its site follows the law. But NPR has found more than 100 dietary supplements sold by third parties on Amazon have made false and potentially illegal claims that they can fight viruses. Amazon - which takes a cut of the sales - has been slow to police its marketplace, and public health experts say these claims are especially concerning during the pandemic. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has been looking into this and joins us now.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right, so can you just first explain what specifically could be illegal here?
DREISBACH: Well, under federal law, it's generally illegal for any dietary supplement to claim it can prevent or treat any virus or specific disease. That of course includes COVID-19, but it's true for all viruses. And Amazon's own internal policy on dietary supplements follows that rule, and the company says they proactively work to prevent any false or illegal claims from ending up on the site in their first place. And if any offending products get through, they say they move quickly to take them down.
CHANG: But a lot of these products are getting through. They're getting put up on the site.
DREISBACH: That's right. So we first heard about this issue from a public health watchdog group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest. They found 46 separate dietary supplements on Amazon that claimed they could fight viruses. And at NPR, we found about 100 more on top of that - stuff like...
DREISBACH: ...Mushroom powders, elderberry tinctures and also this stuff called colloidal silver, which is basically a liquid with tiny silver particles in it. Colloidal silver is not considered safe or effective for treating any medical condition at all. It can have very serious side effects at high doses, including permanently staining your skin blue.
CHANG: Oh, my God.
DREISBACH: But on Amazon, we actually found colloidal silver products marketed for use by kids and this sponsored ad on Amazon for a company called My Doctor Suggests.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The purpose of these products is to deliver silver in a safe method so that it will destroy bacteria, viruses or yeast inside the body or outside the body.
DREISBACH: Now, those claims are just not backed up by the scientific evidence. That company, My Doctor Suggests - they were actually sued by the Department of Justice for COVID-19-related fraud. But despite that lawsuit, the ad was still up on Amazon until we started asking questions.
CHANG: Well, beyond the lack of scientific evidence here, are there other reasons public health groups are concerned about this?
DREISBACH: Right. There's several issues. I mean, one, experts just say it's a waste of money when people's budgets are very tight. The other issue is that claiming a supplement is antiviral, you know, might give people a false sense of security during the pandemic, and...
DREISBACH: You might think you're safer. You don't have to do the things that we know do work - right? - like wearing a mask, washing your hands or social distancing. And if you don't do that kind of thing, it could be really dangerous.
CHANG: So how has Amazon responded so far?
DREISBACH: Well, they say they take swift action whenever they hear about these kinds of issues. They point out that they've blocked, they say, more than 6 million products from entering the marketplace. But in this case, they've been slow or even sometimes completely unresponsive to our questions. They did remove some of the claims and said they took action against bad actors. But, you know, we mentioned that we found more than 100 other products with these issues. They have not taken those products down for the most part as of now.
And we reached out to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who's been a tough critic of them on these issues. He's a prominent Democrat. He said in a statement, quote, "Amazon has shown during this crisis a willful pattern of negligence and malaise in the face of rampant and illegal conduct by its sellers, conduct that poses profound dangers to consumers."
CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Dreisbach.
Thank you, Tom.
DREISBACH: Thanks, Ailsa.
CHANG: And just a note that Amazon provides funding support to NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.