Capitalism in the Time of Covid-19

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ionizer! See 99.99%. Photo from

Who said our economy shut down during shelter-in-place? Based on the nature of advertisements, businesses seem to be thriving–businesses targeted at selling masks, toilet paper, and chloroquine tablets, in particular. The innovation of greed has been a marvel to behold as this pandemic created, in just a few weeks, a whole sub-industry of quackery preying on people’s needs, fears, and hopes.

Counterfeit: Rascal Rollover

Despite the gutting of budgets for critical government health agencies like the CDC and FDA, the handful of people there are kept very busy posting about bogus companies. For example, the Wall Street Journal last week wrote about how thousands of overseas medical suppliers were using a fake Delaware registry as their representative. Pop over to the CDC, and you can easily find a handy list of how to tell if a company is falsely claiming their product is endorsed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Hint: they might misspell NIOSH.

What’s crazy isn’t so much that an Asian company might market a product in the U.S. with the fancy label “Air Queen,” or that they might sell a lot of masks which aren’t medical-grade. What’s crazy is that they bothered to create a fake Letter of Approval from the NIOSH, which the NIOSH then has to post with a “We Don’t Endorse this Crap….” label. Instead of working to design and manufacture whatever they would need to make masks that are medical-grade, it’s obviously much cheaper to create a fake letter of endorsement. But since American consumers wouldn’t care whether the letter has the correct government agency on it, there must be a middle-market supplier who needed to be convinced, which requires someone to be on top of determining what the transport paperwork looks like for such agencies. That’s damn elaborate!

However, as the founder of Quackwatch Dr. Stephen Barrett told NPR, when the AIDS crisis arose, those who touted fake cancer cures started touting fake AIDS cures. He called it “Rascal Rollover.” With Covid-19, the Rascals roll on.

Buccaneers: Stockpiling & Chasing Masks

While some entrepreneurs simply slap on false endorsement labels, others have jumped into the shipping and handling end of things. The Colvin brothers of Tennessee were vilified for price gouging and stockpiling, when they started snapping up Dollar Tree hand sanitizer by the truckload and selling it for $10 a bottle. Matt Colvin was quick to point out that his price included his labor and delivery costs.

Colvin made a living at this “retail arbritrage,” guessing at which products might be suddenly in demand, staking an upfront purchase, and putting his hand cart into overtime. Arguably, it was good old-fashioned ingenuity. The state of Tennessee (and the U.S.) called it price gouging, and he ended up sitting on 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer that he couldn’t sell. In the settlement with the state of Tennessee, he donated the supplies to avoid fines and jail time.

Honestly, I feel bad for the guy. He made his purchases in late February–weeks before the pandemic began its spread. He timed it right and did the work of loading and buying. His mistake was telling his story to the NY Times in March. Ultimately, an executive order was generated that directed the Justice Department to investigate price gouging, and other buccaneers have now been charged. That’s a good outcome, and the state of Tennessee thanks Matt for his generous donation. Better luck next time with Finger Monkeys and Beanie Babies.

Early on, stories proliferated of other mask-chasers and would-be hoarders. Propublica shared an account of Robert Stewart, owner of a “supply company,” who was awarded a $34.5 million contract by the VA to provide masks, despite having no experience with medical supply. A Propublica reporter, allowed to accompany Stewart on his private jet to an alleged supplier, details how the deal fell through mid-flight, was replaced by another, only to have the plane land and the masks evaporate. There had been photos sent from a warehouse with boxes, but… don’t these people watch cop shows and heist movies? You switch the money/drugs/secret documents/N95 masks for a wad of kleenex before you slip it in your pants. Didn’t you ever see The Sting?

99.99% Effective: By any other name

We are in an epidemic, not just from this virus, but from false claims. We know this comes from the executive branch. News agencies no longer even just count the lies–they have enough to categorize on a bar graph! Looks statistically significant to me.

So if El Presidente can say the first thing that pops into his head about drinking bleach or taking tablets, what’s to stop people who already make products? The FDA also is in full employment mode these days, just keeping a list of all the products falsely claiming that they help with coronavirus. Here’s one: “Top 5 Essential Oils for the Virus” by Eve Cabanel, “with an antibiotic for RNA Viruses…” then in diminutive print, visible only with a magnifying glass, “except for Covid-19.” Or how about “BLUBLOCK skin tonic…with methylene blue” to block that virus. Not.

Some of these are out-and-out BS, snake oil products that do absolutely nothing. Others actually have a function, but not against Coronavirus. The pastors of the Dream City Church, where a re-election campaign event squeezed 3000 Arizonans together yesterday, touted their special air purifier in advance of the event. They weren’t worried about Covid-19 because they had a Clean Air EXP purifier which would kill “99.9% of the virus!” The Clean Air EXP company had to issue a clarification that their product did eliminate some viruses, but not Covid-19.

There’s a grain of truth here. It’s known that Covid-19 spreads very effectively indoors, possibly because of less air circulation. Companies are trying to create products to improve circulation and health officials have recommended that factories and office buildings improve air flow to blunt the spread. Jumping to 99.99% pure was a particular leap of faith, however, and the pastors pulled down their video claims. Those 3000 Arizonans packed in anyway.

Toxic Science: A New Circle of Hell

Scariest of all this proliferation of fakery and snake oils sales is the rising list of dangerous products. It is bad enough if a product doesn’t work or if a legitimate product can’t be obtained because of hoarders. Or if a product, like a mask, works in part but not up to a high standard. But many of the items circulating or touted are downright dangerous.

Yesterday, the Times ran a story about a group of hand sanitizers coming out of Mexico which had a high degree of wood alcohol, i.e. methanol. Used extensively, methanol can be toxic, which makes the CleanCare No Germ product dangerous. Also the Good Gel Antibacterial and the Saniderm Advanced. The fancier the name, it seems, the more dubious the product. When the FDA contacted the manufacturer, Eskbiochem, their representative said someone else had registered with the FDA and that they would have to find the person who acted as the broker because “We would never do that, send a toxic chemical maliciously.” (Why do I keep hearing the Dan Aykroyd character, Irwin Mainway, defending his teddy bear with chainsaw?)

Meanwhile, stories abound of people buying up all the hydroxychloroquine they could find because it was pushed by you-know-who, which led to other unintended consequences. Patients with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis–who are legitimately helped by the drug–now can’t get their meds. (Or maybe they can by now since the FDA took back their endorsement of the drug as a Covid-19 treatment).

There was also the man in Arizona who died as a result of ingesting chloroquine phosphate, a compound related to hydroxychloroquiine. Related in that it used some of the same words, though unfortunately chloroquine phosphate is used to treat fish parasites and infections. He was half right with the scientific name, but dead wrong in usage.

We’re all trying to become amateur epidemiologists, which really means we’re in trouble. I’m pretty darn well educated, and I don’t know enough about the distinction between antibodies and antigens, to know chloroquine from hydroxychloroquine. Yet, while I was reading my favorite news site yesterday, an advertisement touted the benefits of X-Pur for “safe excipients.” Did you know the demand is growing for parenteral formulations, which would have multiple benefits in gelatin for? … oh I get it now.. there’s the magic word: for vaccines. There’s so much money to be made that randomly sending out advertising to every Tom, Dick, and Kajmeister might yield someone interested in a parenteral formulation strategy. Vaccines are surely the next source for falsehood and quackery, no doubt.

I’ll leave the excipient strategy to the biomedical professionals. Meanwhile, I really would recommend checking with your doctor before you start eating your goldfish’s medicine. Plus, rather than buying up every oil and squirtable product to make yourself safer, go back to those four steps that every health official everywhere has been recommending since February. Avoid gatherings. Wear a mask when you’re near people. Stay sneezing-distance away. Wash your hands.

4 Replies to “Capitalism in the Time of Covid-19”

  1. Interesting article! It kind of makes me facepalm, though, with how gullible some people can be, not to mention the companies that try to take advantage.

    1. Doesn’t it though? HL Mencken said no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the masses. Should we grateful that these schemes are keeping some employed? Thanks for the comment.

  2. I know corporations/securities/bonds/equities/ETFs on the stock exchange/markets were also buying up products and interests they anticipated to be in demand (like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and crackers among much more). I guess you’re just not supposed to buy it up as an individual person or in the form of a closely-held company.

    1. I probably shouldn’t have picked on the individual arbitrager–I do feel sorry for him. Arbitrage, i.e. betting on supply and demand to make a profit off misfortune might feel icky, but it’s not fraud and I shouldn’t lump it in with the fraudsters. Corporations and individuals who do that are both taking a risk. But Amazon is also making $$ off people who are selling emergency supplies with high prices, too. I really wanted to highlight that this “wild west” environment is inviting so many disreputables. Now, people are even calling with Contact Tracing scams, claiming someone you met had Covid and send us $50 to take a test. That’s unconscionable. So are specific entities in our federal government who are manipulating the news cycle to profit themselves. If only all this energy for cheating could actually be redirected into efforts to help people–imagine! Thanks for your comment.

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