Science vs. Marketing

Every conceivable segment of our lives has been impacted by COVID-19 and by our responses to it.  In an effort to reduce the possibility of being exposed to the virus by touching an unsanitized surface and then touching your face (which you’re not supposed to do anyway), we’ve adopted hand sanitizers as a staple of our daily lives.  But are they in fact effective in reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19?  It will be a while before hand sanitizers are studied sufficiently to definitively determine their level of effectiveness.  In the interim, there will be more than a few lawsuits challenging the claims of sanitizer manufacturers.

At present there are two class action suits against GOJO, the manufacturer of Purell, which dominates the hand sanitizer market.  The plaintiffs allege that the statement on Purell’s label that the product can kill "99.9 percent of illness-causing germs" is misleading, because it implies "sound scientific support when none exists."

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned GOJO against making unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of its products.  The FDA cited several advertising campaigns suggesting that Purell could prevent the flu, ebola, norovirus and other potentially deadly diseases.  "However, FDA is currently not aware of any adequate and well-controlled studies demonstrating that killing or decreasing the number of bacteria or viruses on the skin by a certain magnitude produces a corresponding clinical reduction in infection or disease caused by such bacteria or virus." the federal agency wrote.  It should also be noted that the FDA recommends the use of hand sanitizer only when soap and water are not available.

Besides the obvious relevance of these lawsuits to the current pandemic, they reflect the increasingly difficult job that our courts have in determining the efficacy of a product which makes claims that are unsupported by peer reviewed scientific studies.  I anticipate that there will be a long and fractious battle of experts over these issues, lasting long beyond the current reason for the heavy use of hand sanitizers.


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