Bad Science Debunked

If it Quacks Like a Duck — Oscillococcinum

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It’s perhaps the most amazing drug on CVS’ shelves today:  It features:

That’s right.  No active ingredients.  Read on to see if Oscillococcinum might be right for you!

Oscillococcinum, a drug with no active ingredients. (See footnotes for image credit.)

Oscillococcinum was a drug originally made from the non-existent oscillococcinum bacterium (wink wink nudge nudge) and marketed as a cure for the flu.  This is curious, as the flu is viral, not bacterial, in nature.

Now made from duck parts that don’t exist — perfect for a quack cure — Oscillococcinum is homeopathic.  One of the features of many homeopathic medicines is that they are repeatedly diluted during production.  Oscillococcinum is typical:  the dilution is so extreme that there’s no original product left in the box when it goes out the door.

CVS-branded oscillococcinum. Get your sugar cheaper! (click to enlarge image.)

The dilution factor for CVS’ duck-based medicine is “200C”.  In homeopathy, “200C” means that:

  1. The original product is diluted with water to 1/100th the original concentration
  2. A small sample of the dilution is set aside
  3. That 1/100th sample is taken, diluted with water, and the process is repeated for a total of 200 iterations

As is the case with any homeopathic medicine diluted to such extremes, the odds of receiving any end product (in this case, duck) are so astronomical they border on impossible.

But would you actually want the duck?

A quick look at the CVS product info sheet tells us that Oscillococcinum:

“is made from tissue that might be infected with flu—ducks, which are known to carry influenza”

Wait.  What’s happening here?  Is CVS selling me an infected bird?  That’s freaky scary.  When I get the flu shot, at least I know the virus in the shot is dead.

Or, is CVS selling me pure water & sugar… a product from which all the duck has been removed?  Back to the product info sheet:

“Oscillococcinum is of 200c potency, meaning that it is diluted to one part in 10 400 (a dilution so high that even if you started with a chunk of duck the size of the sun, not one molecule would remain).”1

Wow.  Balls the size of… (!)

The imaginary active ingredient has been completely removed from this product, and CVS doesn’t even try to hide it:  they brag about it!

If you’re a CVS customer paying for this stuff, you’re paying for filler product.  Water and sugar.  Actually, it’s questionable whether or not you’re even getting any water.  The ingredients list only shows sugar.  What you’re definitely not getting is duck.  (For that reason, we’ll leave the dangers of ingesting a disease-laden bird for another article.)

Oscillococcinum gets a special mention in Jean-Marie Abgrall’s “Healing or Stealing?: Medical Charlatans in the New Age”.2  The drug was invented in 1919 when a Frenchman noticed an “oscillating” condition in flu patients and a corresponding “oscillating” amount of an imaginary germ he decided to call “oscillococcus”.  The only problem was, he thought he noticed the same microbe in herpes, chicken pox, shingles, and cancer patients — and decided all the diseases were caused by the same thing.  Mon dieu!8

The Frenchman tested a vaccine he developed on his cancer patients who, of course, died.  Afraid of being infected by his patients, the doctor went in search of his oscilloccinum bacterium in the wild.  He claims to have found it in a duck.  I’m not making this [expletive deleted] up.  No one else has ever seen oscilloccinum.  It doesn’t really exist.  But this hasn’t stopped snake… erm…  duck oil salesmen from cashing in.

Oscillococcinum isn’t all it’s quacked up to be.  It contain no active ingredient(s)! (Photo by the author)

Manufactured by the French company Boiron, Oscillococcinum has been singled out for deceptive marketing in the United States.  In June 2010, Homeopathy for Health, a Washington vendor, was cited by the FDA for a slew of violations, including marketing Oscillococcinum as a treatment for H1N1 (“Swine Flu”) and “relief of flu symptoms”.3 Although the CVS literature lists one late 1980s study with marginal results touting Oscillococcinum efficacy,2 no other studies back the CVS claims.  This is not surprising.  If you only have one study to back you up, take that study, trumpet it loudly, and hope nobody notices.

When sugar pills are shown to stop the flu virus, let’s all meet in the bakery aisle of the supermarket when we get sick, and skip the trip to the doctor.

As I write this, CVS is actively removing protests regarding Oscillococcinum sales from its Facebook page.  These posts, to the best of my knowledge, truthfully inform consumers that the product contains no active ingredients, has never been shown to be of any help in combating the flu, and, in fact, could be dangerous: influenza is a serious disease and can be deadly.5, 6

CVS places homeopathic medicines next to real medicines on their shelves (with similar packaging) with no consumer warnings, making it difficult for a trusting public to know what they’re buying.  When a pharmacy dispenses real medicine and real flu vaccines along with sugar pills without any cautionary text, it’s a problem.  Skipping real treatment in favor of Oscillococcinum could do real harm.

A “drug” made from sugar and non-existent duck parts?  A company that takes pride in its public health outreach programs4 should be ashamed of itself for this quackery — no pun intended.  I hope readers will take a moment to go the CVS Facebook page7 and express their unhappiness.  As consumers, we deserve better.

Postscript (18 December 2014)  Alert readers have pointed out that CVS is not the only vendor selling this fake medicine.  Indeed, since writing this article, I’ve found it online at Amazon and Drugstore.com.  It’s reportedly been seen on the shelves of Walmart, Walgreens, and Rite-Aid–though I haven’t witnessed that myself.  I’ll be writing follow-up articles to cover this.  No matter where you find it–if you find it–please encourage sellers of oscillococcinum to remove this useless product from their shelves.

References

(1)  CVS: Influenza: Studied Homeopathic Remedies
http://health.cvs.com/GetContent.aspx?token=f75979d3-9c7c-4b16-af56-3e122a3f19e3..&chunkiid=38325#scientific

(2) Healing Or Stealing?: Medical Charlatans in the New Age
Healing Or Stealing?: Medical Charlatans in the New Age. pp. 40–41. ISBN 1-892941-51-1

(3) FDA Inspections, Compliance, Enforcement, and Criminal Investigations: Warning Letter
http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/ucm215236.htm

(4) CVS stops selling tobacco, offers quit-smoking programs
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/09/03/cvs-steps-selling-tobacco-changes-name/14967821/

(5) CDC Fast Stats: Influenza
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/flu.htm

(6) Key Facts about Influenza (Flu) & Flu Vaccine
http://www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm

(7) CVS (Facebook)
https://www.facebook.com/CVS

(8) Mon Dieu! (My God!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0oMQu2id6I

 

Legal Stuff

CVS Oscillococcinum product image used in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, commonly known as “fair use law”. This material is distributed without profit with the intent to provide commentary, review, education, parody, and increase public health knowledge.

Duck image by the author.  Copyright (c) 2014 Mark Aaron Alsip.  All rights reserved.

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