If you Google “immune-boosting supplements” you’ll find a wide range of products that have shifted their brand message in the last few weeks to target those seeking preventative measures (or even a cure) against COVID-19, the disease often called the coronavirus. Those brands are making false claims.
No supplement in the world can either cure or prevent COVID-19.
While there are a few over the counter medications (like Advil) that can ease the symptoms of coronavirus, there isn’t a cure at this time. None. Zilch. Nada. Nope. There isn’t even anything you can take to lessen the chance of contracting COVID-19.
A few compounds, like vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc, have limited research that suggests they can lessen the duration and severity of some viruses that have been studied previously, such as the virus that causes the common cold.
But the common cold is usually caused by rhinoviruses, not SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They are apples and oranges, as far as RNA is concerned.
Which may lead you to wonder, “Why can’t supplements prevent coronavirus?” To understand why supplements can’t help prevent the coronavirus, it’s important to understand why they can’t prevent any virus.
What is a virus?
Humanity has only ever been able to eradicate one virus: smallpox. And it took a global, 10-year effort to do so.
We’ve been close with some, like polio, measles, mumps, and rubella, but incredibly unsuccessful with others, like the common cold and the seasonal flu.
Viruses are so hard to kill in part because they aren’t technically a living organism. They have no cells or mitochondria. They can’t grow or produce their own energy. They can’t survive without a host.
And yet, despite their simplicity--no, because of it--viruses are a menacing pathogen.
Viruses are essentially made of tiny strands of tightly wound genetic material called RNA. Sometimes, like in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the RNA is encapsulated by proteins.
Coronavirus usually enters a host through the mouth or nose. Once there, it employs proteins (which you can visualize as keys) that are coded to correspond with the material of the cell (which you can think of as the lock).
Once inside the cell, the virus transforms it into its own little factory by using the machinery of the cell to reproduce itself on a massive scale. After infecting a single cell, the virus can send out material that is coded to make around 1 million more viruses, which all exit the cell to infect more cells. Viral reproduction is exponential.
Of course, your body has mechanisms to combat these microscopic invaders, called white blood cells. These amazing cells recognize unwanted passengers and, for lack of a better word, neutralize them (basically, they are deconstructed and recycled).
Click here for a great visual representation from NPR.
Why supplements are useless against COVID-19
Antimicrobials will not help prevent COVID-19
Supplements are useless against coronavirus for the same reasons why, at this time, everything is useless against it.
For one, any supplement with antimicrobial or antibiotic properties, like garlic, honey, ginger, and oregano, won’t do anything to prevent or protect you from viruses.
Antibiotics can fight bacterial infections by slowing down the growth of bacteria by damaging their ability to reproduce or by killing the bacteria by destroying their cell walls.
Viruses don’t have a cell wall, making them difficult to target. What’s more, because viruses reproduce inside the host’s cells, you can’t target the virus without impacting the cell.
Any small immune system “boost” is inconsequential in preventing COVID-19 compared to following CDC recommendations
While there is limited evidence that suggests a few vitamins, like vitamin C, can help lessen the duration and severity of (not prevent or cure) the common cold, there is only anecdotal evidence that it will have a small effect on COVID-19.
Some New York City physicians have been giving doses of vitamin C to their patients, based on case studies from Wuhan.
This does not mean that vitamin C will prevent or cure COVID-19.
Why is the coronavirus so dangerous?
COVID-19 is particularly dangerous in part because it is both contagious and deadly.
The virus that causes the disease COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. This virus infects tissue of the nose and throat, which makes it easy to spread. You can imagine how billions of little viruses hanging out in your mouth could quickly pass onto someone else.
Epidemiologists use something called the basic reproduction number (R0), to help rate how contagious a disease may be. The R value of a disease is the average of expected cases that result from a single case.
So if a virus has an R value of 3, that means for every person who contracts the virus, on average, each of those people will infect another 3 people.
Based on how the R value is calculated, it can vary greatly based on how government, local authorities, and individuals respond. Swift action could reduce the R value of a particularly contagious disease, while insufficient action could increase it. But while it may be an imperfect metric, it is still a valuable metric when trying to predict how widespread a pandemic may become.
Anthony Fauci, M.D. and member of the Coronavirus Task Force, estimated in an early report that the R value for COVID-19 may be about 2.2. (This value is likely to change as more data becomes available.)
If that number sounds small, compare it to the median R value for the 1918 flu pandemic, which was 1.80, or the seasonal flu, which is about 1.3. To help understand just how contagious an R value of 2.2 is, let’s do some math.
There are 882,235 people living in the state of South Dakota. In late March, there were 45 confirmed cases in the state.
- 1st cohort: 45 * 2.2 = 99
- 2nd cohort: 99 * 2.2 = 217.8
- 3rd cohort: 217.8 * 2.2 = 479.16
- 4th cohort: 479.16 * 2.2 = 1054.15
- 5th cohort: 1054.15 * 2.2 = 2,319.12
- 6th cohort: 2,319.12 * 2.2 = 5,102.09
- 7th cohort: 5,102.09 * 2.2 = 11,224.61
- 8th cohort: 11,224.61 * 2.2 = 24,694.14
- 9th cohort: 24,694.14 * 2.2 = 54,327.11
- 10th cohort: 54,327.11 * 2.2 = 119,519.65
- 11th cohort: 119,519.65 * 2.2 = 262,943.23
In just 11 rounds of virus transfer from a starting point of 45, over ⅓ of the state could have been infected by the disease. What’s more, the overly simplistic computation above doesn’t adjust for infections coming into the state as others leave infected areas and travel into the state.
A virus’s R value is far from a perfect computation tool and should be taken with a huge grain of salt. It only offers scientists and public health officials a very broad brush to paint with. And different models produce different results based on the assumptions made in the calculation (which can help explain why projections vary from model to model). However, a report by the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine estimates that without intervention, COVID-19 would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections. (Walker, et al.)
Experts believe that viruses evolved to be contagious yet reasonably mild to their hosts. Really lethal contagions, like Ebola and SARS, generally burn themselves out quickly in part because the infected person immediately seeks hospitalization or becomes too weak to travel, making it difficult for the virus to find new hosts.
However, as virologist Karla Kirkegaard in an article from The Washington Post notes, “A germ that’s merely annoying can perpetuate itself indefinitely.” She continues with an example of a virus, oral herpes, that has lived with humans for 6 million years.
But as we all know now, coronavirus isn’t just a merely annoying contagion--it is also deadly.
In late March, the BBC reported that the UK’s scientific advisers believe the chance of dying from coronavirus is between 0.5% and 1% when adjusted for various factors. Others argue it may fall between 1% to 2%.
Many researchers warn of the dangers of simply dividing known fatalities by known cases, arguing the cases “might be off by orders of magnitude.” (Battegay, et al.) At the time of writing this article, global mortality of known cases is just under 4%. (228,005 / 58,506 = 3.9%).
According to the most recent data by the CDC, here is the first preliminary description of outcomes among patients with COVID-19 in the US.
Aged ≥85: 10%-27%
Aged 65–84: 3%-11%
Aged 55-64: 1%-3%
Aged 20-54: <1%
Aged ≤19 years: 0%
Of course, as we gather more data, a clearer picture will undoubtedly emerge. Right now, we don’t know exactly how contagious or deadly this virus is. We can only predict how those numbers could be decreased by widespread and readily available testing or increased as the pandemic spreads to less industrialized nations.
How to prevent COVID-19
There is nothing anyone can take to prevent or cure COVID-19. But, we can keep our communities healthy by following CDC guidelines and practicing some common sense:
- Wash your hands
- Stay home as much as possible
- Limit face to face interactions, especially with high-risk populations
- Exercise outside or in your own home
- Get plenty of sleep
- Cook healthy meals
- Try to minimize stress
I don’t know if I can say this enough: don’t purchase products from companies that claim they can cure, prevent, or mitigate COVID-19.
Save your time, money, and energy by investing in practices that will actually benefit you. Join a virtual bike race on Zwift. Go trail running. Covert your spare bedroom into a gym. Learn how to cook. Whatever you do...do it at home!
Resources for COVID-19 information
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Johns HopkinS Coronavirus Resource Center
- Harvard Health Coronavirus Resource Center
- Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy
- Myth Busters by the CDC and WHO
- National Health Service (NHS)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- STAT, Live Science, NewScientist, Kaiser Health News, Gizmodo, and the Associated Press.
- Examine Coronavirus Disease Resources
About The Author:
- Battegay M, Kuehl R, Tschudin-Sutter S, et al. 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV): estimating the case fatality rate—a word of caution. Swiss Med Wkly 2020 Feb 7;150:w20203 (published online Jan 27)
- Biggerstaff M1, Cauchemez S, Reed C, Gambhir M, Finelli L. Estimates of the reproduction number for seasonal, pandemic, and zoonotic influenza: a systematic review of the literature. BMC Infect Dis. 2014 Sep 4;14:480. doi: 10.1186/1471-2334-14-480.
- Brown, Matt. Fact check: Could taking vitamin C cure -- or prevent -- Covid-19? USA Today. March 24, 2020.
- Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Novel Coronavirus. University of Minnesota. 2020.
- CDC. Severe Outcomes Among Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — United States, February 12–March 16, 2020. March 26.
- Fauci, Anthony S. et al. Covid-19 -- Navigating the Uncharted. The New England Journal of Medicine. February 28, 2020.
- FDA. Coronavirus Update: FDA and FTC Warn Seven Companies Selling Fraudulent Products that Claim to Treat or Prevent COVID-19. FDA News Release. March 9, 2020.
- Kaplan, Sarah, William Wan, Joel Achenbach. The coronavirus isn’t alive. That’s why it’s so hard to kill. The Washington Post. March 23, 2020.
- Mongelli, Lorena, Bruce Golding. New York hospitals treating coronavirus patients with vitamin C. New York Post. March 24, 2020.
- National Health Service. Advice for everyone. NHS. March 25, 2020.
- O’Conner, Anahad. Supplements for Coronavirus Probably Won’t Help, and May Harm. The New York Times. March 23, 2020.
- Patel, Kamal. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Examine. March 26, 2020.
- Wan, William, Joel Achenbach, Carolyn Y. Johnson, Ben Guarino. Coronavirus will radically alter the U.S. The Washington Post. March 19, 2020.
- WHO. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters. 2020.
- WHO. Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it. 2020.
- Zeratsky, Katerine. Is it possible to take too much vitamin C? Mayo Clinic. March 18, 2020.