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Some chiropractors across the country are using social media to spread dangerous misinformation about the cause of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
St. Louis–based chiropractor Eric Nepute went live on Facebook last Monday, April 6, to urge his followers to drink quinine and eat zinc to combat COVID-19. Nepute’s video was captioned “Seriously. How much longer are we going to put up with all the BS..???” and has been viewed 21 million times and shared over 185,000 times since last Monday.
“Quinine acts similar to hydrochloroquine, OK,” Nepote said in the livestream. “Quinine acts as a transport chain to allow nutrients to get into the cells. So I'm telling everybody right now, if you know someone who's got flulike symptoms. If they've got symptoms of COVID-19, the cold, the flu, whatever. Go and get either some quinine and/or some Schweppes tonic water. Let me tell you this again: quinine and/or Schweppes tonic water. I need every one of you to be sharing this right now, I mean every one. Every person needs to share this because there's a lot of bullshit going on right now that everybody needs to know about. And I'm going to throw some common sense at you because most people aren't looking at this. Go get some quinine and get some zinc.”
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Nepute for comment. As of Monday night, the video contains a warning from Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers that it could contain partly false information.
A spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association told BuzzFeed News that it was urging its members not to spread misinformation amid the outbreak.
“The [ACA] advises its members to follow guidance regarding the prevention of the coronavirus (COVID-19) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other credible sources and to share this information with their patients,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also said that the ACA Board of Governors released a statement to clarify that there is no substantial evidence to support that spinal adjustments, the core method that chiropractors use to treat patients, could prevent or treat COVID-19.
Even though the video has gone astoundingly viral in little under a week, Nepute’s advice is not only wrong, it could be dangerous. Dr. Luis Ostrosky, a professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told BuzzFeed News that the treatments Nepute was advocating for in his video have no scientific basis.
“I'm guessing he's going off of quinine as another antimalarial drug,” Ostrosky said. “There's really nothing in the literature about quinine and COVID-19.” He explained that quinine has some similarities to chloroquine, which President Donald Trump and his supporters have touted as a miracle drug for the coronavirus — despite the publishers of the journal that had published the study touting chloroquine later saying it "did not meet expected standards” among other criticisms of the study.
Ostrosky said that there has been some evidence that zinc lozenges could alleviate some symptoms of the common cold, which has led some people to falsely extrapolate that it could be a way to combat COVID-19. “We should warn people about zinc. It causes severe gastrointestinal distress,” he said. “If it sounds too easy and too obvious, it's probably not true.”
Outside of Facebook, Nepute's video lives on. It has been viewed an additional 2.8 million times on YouTube, uploaded under titles like “Frank Hahnel A real Doctor telling it like it is. It's all Fake.” The YouTube version was shared heavily on Twitter by QAnon-affiliated accounts. One of its biggest referrers on Facebook was from the actor Antonio Sabàto Jr., who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Ventura County, California, in 2018.
Dr. Ravina Kullar, an infectious diseases researcher, told BuzzFeed News she had seen Nepute’s video and cautioned chiropractors not to use social media to spread misinformation or miracle cures. “Being a medical expert or a medical professional, you're given that responsibility that whatever comes out of your mouth, people are going to run with it," she said.
Kullar said that people need to be especially careful about cures touted on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. “My fear is that hearing this claim people might overdose on zinc, overdose on [the quinine in] tonic water,” she said. “You just see everyone trying to find something with the cure.”
The chiropractic community has roots in 19th-century pseudoscience, and despite an effort in the 21st century to move to more evidence-based treatments, Nepute is far from the only chiropractor spreading hoaxes about the coronavirus.
The Twitter account for a clinic in Virginia on Monday told its followers to “stop worrying about the germs and start taking care of the host!” A chiropractor from Colorado shared a tweet on Sunday that accused the NWO ("New World Order") of forcing people to wear face masks. A chiropractor in New Jersey shared a video from a QAnon-affiliated Twitter account claiming the coronavirus death toll was fake. And on TikTok, California-based chiropractor Alicia Tsounis promoted colloidal silver spray, which is ineffective at killing the coronavirus.
Earlier this month, an Idaho chiropractor who had previously posted videos advocating against vaccines ran Facebook ads falsely claiming his products could prevent COVID-19. In one promoted video — “How to PREVENT COVID-19 Virus from infecting you…” — he advised people to use a “silver spray” instead of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Facebook disabled his ad account and removed his page.
Chiropractor Kim Gambino, the wife of former head of the California Chiropractic Association Dan Gambino, has been regularly using her public Facebook page to promote conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Gambino has shared content railing against social distancing and is also a proponent of the conspiracy theory that 5G cellular technology is causing the coronavirus. “Do you think these microwaves could be causing the same symptoms as the coronavirus?” Gambino wrote last month.
Facebook’s Fact-Check widget even appears under one of Gambino’s posts, indicating a third-party fact-checker for the platform believed the post contained harmful content about COVID-19.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Gambino for comment.
Andrew Williams, the president of the California Chiropractic Association, distanced himself from members of his profession spreading conspiracy theories. “There's always certain people," he told BuzzFeed News. "You'll have your outliers.”
Williams said that he believes many chiropractors are following guidelines from regulatory bodies and doing their best to share positive information without panicking people.
But Gambino’s Facebook comments are full of other chiropractors agreeing with her posts about how the mainstream scientific information about the coronavirus is a lie. She also shares posts from other outspoken chiropractors, like Gilles Lamarche, the vice president of university advancement at Life University, a Georgia-based school for chiropractic and other health industries.
Full of conspiratorial COVID-19 content, Lamarche’s public Facebook page has a small following of several thousand people. Last week, Lamarche shared a video from Banned.video, the current host of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars, which claimed Microsoft founder Bill Gates was using the coronavirus to depopulate the earth. Lamarche also recently shared an article from the conservative Washington Times accusing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of “setting the stage” to profit off a COVID-19 vaccine. And like Gambino’s page, Lamarche’s comment sections are full of other chiropractors agreeing with him.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Lamarche for comment.
The online misinformation is having physical ramifications. Sylvia Salas, an employee at New Life Chiropractic and Wellness in Santa Clarita, California, told BuzzFeed News that she was worried about contracting the virus while at work. Salas said her employer, chiropractor Jennifer Vaccaro, is extremely outspoken about how she doesn’t think COVID-19 is real. Salas said she was admitted to the emergency room over the weekend due to chest pain and is awaiting test results.
“She thinks this is just an attack on the president. I constantly hear her tell her patients how ridiculous all this is,” Salas said. “My daughter works for this clinic also and is experiencing the coronavirus symptoms.”
A representative for New Life Chiropractic and Wellness who identified themselves as Erica told BuzzFeed News that the clinic was designated an essential business and is allowed to remain open during the outbreak.
“The [employee] that complained that she had been tested, she had tested negative, so I'm not sure what there is to write about,” Erica said.