There are no pills, vaccines, or supplements that can cure COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has spread around the world, killing more than 50,000 people, infecting over 1 million, and causing a global shutdown.
But that hasn’t stopped orange juice sales from soaring as people look to get more vitamin C in their diet, and it hasn’t stopped vitamin supplement businesses from making a killing, and it certainly hasn’t stopped wellness influencers from telling their followers to take potentially lethal doses of the vitamin.
Google Trends shows that interest in ‘coronavirus vitamin C’ reached a crescendo by the end of March, as hundreds of thousands of desperate people grasped for solutions. Sales of vitamin C increased 146% in America as people began stocking up, while Asia and Singapore anticipated a vitamin shortage.
Vitamin C doesn’t reduce the risk of a cold, but it may make it milder
Vitamin C is one of the most popular vitamin supplements in the US. The association between vitamin C and the ability to fend off disease was made by a Nobel prize winning chemist named Linus Pauling, who wrote a book called Vitamin C and the Common Cold, recommending 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily. The book was a bestseller, reissued in 1973 with a promise to ward off a swine flu epidemic.
Many studies followed, showing Pauling’s claims were inaccurate. By the time Pauling claimed vitamin C could cure cancer, he had lost all credibility in the scientific community. Yet the belief that vitamin C could fight off a cold remained steadfast, and by 2013, according to a Gallup poll, half of all Americans were taking vitamins regularly.
According to the NIH, vitamin C doesn’t reduce the risk of getting a cold, but people who take vitamin C may have slightly shorter or milder colds.
The immune system is too complex to be ‘boosted’ by one vitamin
When the coronavirus hit the US, wellness influencers began promoting vitamins to their audiences as a “booster” to the immune system. As Insider previously reported, one nurse practitioner and YouTuber said his clinic would give people with the virus a high dose shot of vitamin D3 and IV infusions of vitamin C megadoses.
“There’s no such thing as a general booster,” nutrition researcher Kamal Patel, of independent nutrition database Examine.com, told Insider.
Patel compared the immune system to missile alert system, dedicated on keeping anything dangerous out. If the immune system is oversensitized, autoimmune reactions will result. If it’s undersensitized, people might be more susceptible to infection.
“The immune system is one of the most complex and finely tuned things we know of,” Patel said in an email to Insider. “So, unfortunately, you can’t use broad-spectrum “boosters” to just make things work overall better.”
Hospitals are giving COVID-19 patients vitamin C because their levels are running low. It does not mean it’s a ‘cure.’
New York hospitals began treating patients with vitamin C, based on reports that it’s helped people in China. The doses are 16 times the recommended daily dose.
“The patients who received vitamin C did significantly better than those who did not get vitamin C,” Northwell Health critical care specialist Dr. Andrew G. Weber told the New York Post.
Patel says the reason that works is because, when people get really sick, their vitamin C levels get depleted and may need replenishing.
“Humans are one of the only mammals who don’t make their own vitamin C — they have to ingest it,” he told Insider. “So when we encounter severe physiological stress, vitamin C through IV is a possibility for reducing runaway oxidation and inflammation.”
There’s research that suggests there’s some benefit to giving patients on ventilators vitamin C, but scientists don’t know it will react with Covid-19.
Clinical trials on the effects of vitamin C on the new coronavirus are underway
There are at least two clinical trials testing vitamin C’s effects on the new coronavirus, one in Italy and one in China. In Hubei, China, 140 COVID-19 patients with pneumonia, will take 12 grams of vitamin C via IV to see if the dose will help them fight off the disease. It is not recommended that anyone try to replicate the trial themselves: getting vitamins via IV is different from consuming a handful of pills, and taking that much vitamin C without a doctor’s supervision could be lethal.
In an Italian study, 500 patients will get 10 grams of vitamin C. They’re still recruiting.
When it comes to the coronavirus, vitamin C deficiency might put people more at risk of getting the disease because of an impaired immune system.
However, Miryam Wahrman, author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World, and biology professor at William Paterson University, told Insider that, as of now, there are no studies showing vitamin C can protect against coronavirus. One study briefly touched on the relationship between vitamin C and lower respiratory issues, suggesting “a moderate amount of vitamin C supplementation may be a way to prevent COVID-19.”
Wahrman told Insider that this “is quite a stretch, and by no means a scientifically supported notion.”
Patel advises people not to take excessive amounts of vitamins from supplements, and not to try their own IV treatments, but instead “to get vitamin C from foods high in it, given the unknowns right now.”