Profiting From Ebola Fear

As the outbreak goes on, companies are capitalizing on public concern by peddling fraudulent treatments.

For $34 (plus $5.49 shipping), you can purchase a personal protective kit on Amazon that will probably do nothing to protect you against Ebola.

Fortunately, there hasn't been an Ebola outbreak in the U.S., and your chances of catching it—even without the kit—are virtually zero. But that hasn't stopped sales of this kind of equipment from skyrocketing in the past month.

Sales of the kit—which includes a full-body suit, eye protection, two surgical masks, two pairs of gloves, booties, and duct tape—jumped 393 percent on Amazon following the diagnosis of the first Ebola case in New York City on Thursday evening. Sales of one body suit skyrocketed 131,000 percent in 24 hours after the diagnosis of the first Ebola patient in the U.S. on Oct. 1, according to CNBC.

The attempt to make money off of panic surrounding new disease outbreaks is nothing new: The H1N1 outbreak in 2009 resulted in the sale of products like "Tamiflu" pills from India and "magic wands," while the SARS epidemic in 2003 led companies to hike the price of face masks.

"[What we're seeing with Ebola] fits into previous outbreaks," said Thomas Bollyky, global health, economics, and development senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The necessary ingredients to this type of profiteering are twofold: panic and novelty. In times of uncertainty, people search out information, and if they're still nervous, they'll search it out from unconventional sources, which is what's happening here."

The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission are actively monitoring fraudulent claims and urging consumers to report any they might encounter. If there is an express or implied claim that the product prevents or treats Ebola, that would be cause for intervention, as there are currently no FDA-approved vaccines or prescription or over-the-counter drugs to fight the virus.

"It's hard to tell how widespread it is at this point," said Richard Cleland, assistant director for the Division of Advertising Practices at FTC. "The concern is that if the public anxiety over Ebola continues to grow, we're going to see more and more."

The FDA and FTC have sent three warning letters thus far: to Natural Solutions Foundation, which is marketing Nano Silver as a cure for Ebola; and to Young Living and DōTerra International, which are both marketing essential oils to combat the virus.

"Often these things have some conceivable scientific basis that is then really overstated," said Dr. Jesse Goodman, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University. "We know for example that Nano Silver has properties where if viruses come into contact, it might counteract [them]. That's correct—but it has not been proven correct in humans."

Some companies will market their products as dietary supplements, or avoid making direct treatment or prevention claims in an attempt to avoid crossing the regulatory line.

"The only gray area is whether they're making a claim," Cleland said. "If they're running an article that talks about the Ebola epidemic and then selling vitamins and minerals that they're touting as increasing immunity and the immune system—to me that's a pretty clearly implied claim to have some effect on preventing and reducing Ebola. I don't really think there's any fuzziness on that."

One advertisement stands out as particularly crazy. "I saw one for snake venom that caused me to raise eyebrows," Cleland said.

So was that a claim addressed by the FDA and FTC? "I think you won't find it anymore."

But much of the current profiteering is less clear-cut from a regulatory perspective. Companies are also hiking prices of supplies like bleach or masks, or attempting to scare people into thinking they personally need Ebola protective gear—claims that are not themselves fraudulent, and thus not subject to regulatory measures.

"From an FTC perspective, unless companies are misrepresenting or failing to disclose material information, we wouldn't have a basis for action," Cleland said. "Consumers have to assess for themselves what the need for those types of products are."

While these supplies are not harmful, in the way false drug claims could be, the average American's need for them is zero. And believing otherwise could set consumers back as much as $497. (That suit's manufacturer, Immediate Response Technologies, could not be reached late Friday for comment.)

In the case of the protective kit on Amazon, the product description does not currently mention Ebola, but comments indicate this is a recent change. And skeptical consumers seem well aware that this is the intention, with reviews ranging from the serious ("This should be marketed as a Halloween costume, as it is NOT EFFECTIVE in preventing EBOLA contamination ... If someone uses this thinking they are remotely protected from EBOLA and catches it, they should sue the living pants off this seller.") to the snarky ("All in all I appear to be Ebola-free since buying this and would recommend it to others who wish to dwell in their basement, attached to a toilet and eating food rations. It's the only true way to be Ebola-free these days, you never know when an infected person might lick the inside of your mouth.").

This kind of exploitation is occurring in the Ebola-stricken countries as well, where fear is more prevalent and more justified.

"The most persistent false claim is Nano Silver, a disinfectant usually used in swimming pools, which is being promoted as a 'cure' ... even down to bogus claims that it is being used in treatment," Margaret Harris, the World Health Organization's spokeswoman in Sierra Leone, wrote in an email.

Other false claims include drinking salt water, "holy water" that was being pushed by a Christian cult in Kenema, and fake chlorine that is an incorrect strength or not chlorine at all, she said.

In Liberia, there have been enormous spikes in the prices of gloves, chlorine, and other supplies to prevent or guard against the virus, according to Bollyky.

The danger of this misinformation is far greater in the West African countries, where the reported death toll has already reached nearly 5,000, and WHO estimates actual totals are three times higher.

"If this is merely people in the U.S., who are at incredibly low risk, profiteering may be sleazy, but largely from a health perspective is harmless," Bollyky said. "I'm more concerned [if these products] are keeping people from seeking treatment or engaging in the isolation that we really want patients to have if they're identified [as having the virus.].

"If people are selling face masks to make a buck, that makes [them] bad people, but it doesn't lead to broader public-health outcomes. I'd be more concerned about situations that do."