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Opinion | Covid-19 Has Closed Stores, but Snake Oil Is Still for Sale

“Because they are,” the charlatan responds. “That’s who stands to gain from this. They’re working hand in glove.”

Claims like that are common among conspiracy theorists, and they’re particularly dangerous at a time when people are looking for sources of hope and someone they can trust — and both are in short supply.

But these untested and unproven treatments, often promoted on social media, may be toxic. Examples circulating online include drinking household bleach and using cocaine. Other recommendations for killing the virus, like gargling vinegar, eating garlic, or using a hairdryer to blow hot air into your nose, hurt people by providing a false sense of security. If a person believes that garlic or vinegar prevents infection, they are more likely to take part in risky behavior that may ultimately get them infected with the virus.

The government is recognizing the growing risk from snake oil salesmen. The F.B.I. has made its first arrest for fraud, charging a man who has 2.4 million Instagram followers with selling pills he said could cure or prevent Covid-19. The New York State attorney general issued a cease and desist letter against the televangelist Jim Bakker, who is also being sued by the state of Missouri for falsely claiming his Silver Solution could cure Covid-19.

“The pandemic is dangerous enough without wrongdoers seeking to profit from public panic and this sort of conduct cannot be tolerated,” Attorney General William Barr stated in a memo to federal prosecutors.

These prosecutions against snake oil salesmen should be swift and severe.

And you need to help yourself: If you read or see something online or on TV that purports to prevent or cure Covid-19, go to reputable resources such as the C. D.C., which provide evidence-based recommendations. Do not take the practice of medicine into your own hands, seek guidance from physicians who care about you.

Dr. Phillips is an assistant professor of emergency medicine, and fellowship director and chief, of disaster and operational medicine at George Washington University Hospital, as well as senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at Auburn University. Drs. Selzer, Noll and Alptunaer are disaster and operational medicine fellows at George Washington University.

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