As of Mar 8, the number of COVID-19 infection had exploded to 105,586, with cases reported in 101 countries, territories, and areas. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has increased the global risk assessment level to “very high”.
As individuals seek to safeguard their health, cases of supplements sold at heavily marked-up prices and fake product claims made in relation to COVID-19 prevention have surfaced.
In Vietnam, there have been cases of vitamin C, black garlic syrup, and mouthwash sold at jack up prices, ranging from VND$280k (US$12) to VND$890k (US$38), according to local media Vietnam Plus.
The country’s Ministry of Health Food Safety Department has since said that while supplements produce effects on health, these are not to be used in the treatment or prevention of diseases and viruses.
Other countries, including China, Singapore, and Australia, have thus put up advisories against false product claims.
In Heilongjiang, China, the state administration of market regulation has announced the “Five-Nos” policy on Mar 1. Violators would be subjected to legal punishment.
According to the “Five-Nos”, the following claims, including outright claims or hints are prohibited.
First, claims on a particular health supplement can prevent or treat the novel coronavirus.
Second, claims on immune-boosting health supplements could resist against the novel coronavirus. Third, claims on health supplements exhibit anti-viral functions.
Fourth, claims on health supplements could suppress the novel coronavirus.
Fifth, claims on treating lung infection caused by the novel coronavirus and other fake advertising.
Evaluation and registration
Elsewhere in Singapore and Australia, the authorities said that products making any claim in relation to COVID-19 must be evaluated and supported by scientific evidence and should be registered with the authorities.
Singapore’s Health Science Authorities (HSA) have also reminded dealers and sellers not to make false and misleading claims that the products sold can prevent, protect against, or treat COVID-19.
“Dealers and sellers are also reminded that health products cannot make any claim or reference to a specific infection or claim effectiveness against a specific microorganism, including the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” the authority said.
Violators are liable to legal prosecution and may be imprisoned for up to 12 months and/or fined up to SGD$20,000 if convicted.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration said it has identified certain complementary medicines, also health supplements, that have been inappropriately promoted for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.
Similar to Singapore, claims on how health supplements can prevent the spread of coronavirus or increase immunity to the virus are considered to be therapeutic use claims.
Thus, such products must be included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) before they can be legally supplied.
“We have responded to these (complaints about alleged advertising breaches relating to coronavirus) in line with the TGA’s policy for handling complaints for the advertising of therapeutic goods to the Australian public.
“In addition, the TGA has contacted a number of advertisers directly seeking immediate removal of advertising content and is in the process of investigating other advertising complaints,” a TGA spokesman told NutraIngredients-Asia.
A window of opportunity
On the other hand, there are industry experts who see the epidemic as presenting tremendous opportunities for the health supplement industry.
The deputy executive chairman of China Nutrition and Health Food Association, Liangqiu Li told local media The Beijing News that the increased interest in health as a result of the epidemic has opened a window of opportunity for accelerated growth in the health industry.
She said that since the authorities have included TCM as part of the plan in combating the epidemic and as such, during the mid-late stage or right after the epidemic was over, dietary supplements, especially those which can boost the immune system, would be highly sought after.
As of late last year, over 5,000 health foods that claim to boost the immune system are available in China.
These products make up the bulk of the health foods sold in China and about two-third of them contain TCM ingredients.
Despite the large number of immune boosting products, she said that there were still room for new product innovation, as most of these products were highly similar.