What’s the Deal With ‘Virus Shut Out’ Necklaces?

Though banned in several countries, the bogus coronavirus prevention lanyards are still circulating

A photo of my friend’s Shut Out Virus necklace.

Maybe you’ve seen people wearing them, or maybe you’ve seen an ad for one online: “Virus Shut Out” necklaces that claim to keep the coronavirus at bay. They look like an identification lanyard you might have worn at a networking event or conference before the pandemic happened, only in place of a nametag is a little blue packet filled with chemicals that’s said to prevent the wearer from getting Covid-19.

This claim is false, of course. Scientists have established that the coronavirus primarily spreads through close contact, via tiny droplets emitted when people talk, cough, and sneeze, though it can also be airborne and travel distances over six feet. Preventing Covid-19’s spread requires wearing a mask, washing hands, social distancing, and disinfecting surfaces regularly. The product’s claim that the chlorine dioxide inside the necklace can “produce a strong bactericidal and disinfection effect” around the wearer, thereby killing viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, is completely unsubstantiated. Also, chlorine dioxide can be dangerous to humans.

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the sale of this product, which is manufactured by a Japanese company called Toamit. It’s also been banned in Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines for the same reason. In June, the EPA ordered Amazon and eBay to stop selling it. That’s why I’ve found it so alarming to occasionally see these necklaces in international news — and even around the neck of a friend in New York City.

Despite the bans, the necklaces are not hard to find. Facebook still hosts a group that advertises the product; one post from the creator reads: “We reiterate, VIRUS SHUT OUT TAG of TOAMIT is not Fake and We’re not a Scam.” It’s easily found on the e-commerce sites Lazada and SuperDelivery.com and on Amazon India and Amazon Japan. In March, the Hong Kong Free Press, an independent, nonprofit news site, reported that the necklaces were being widely sold in Hong Kong convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Bonjour as well as in drugstores like Watsons pharmacies, an international chain. Several government officials in South Sudan have been seen wearing the necklaces, and officials in Russia were spotted wearing a similar product sold as a badge. AFP Fact Check, a service run by the international news agency, reported in late June that the product is sold under several names, including Air Doctor and Chlorine Card, and that the necklaces were still on sale in several countries, including Lebanon, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

A quirk in the company’s marketing language has occasionally allowed it to evade scrutiny. In some instances, the product site, packaging, or Facebook group avoids specifically saying that it cures or kills the coronavirus. The Facebook page, for example, reads: “This is NOT A MEDICINE or a VACCINE for COVID19. This is ONLY For Our Extra Protection Against Aerial Viruses and Bacteria (90% & up to 25cm Reach).” HKFP noted that Watsons Pharmacies defended its sale of the product by saying that Virus Shut Out has not been advertised as “effective against the new coronavirus,” citing a company release (in Japanese).

At best, people who buy this product would be wasting about $12. At worst, they may wear it and falsely believe that they are protected from the coronavirus, eschewing proven prevention methods like mask-wearing and social distancing — potentially exposing themselves to the disease and to a chemical that can be harmful.

Chlorine dioxide is a manufactured gas (that is, it doesn’t occur naturally in the environment) that’s used to disinfect drinking water. Breathing it can cause nose, throat, and lung irritation, and ingesting large amounts of chlorite salts, which form when chlorine dioxide interacts with water, may irritate the mouth, esophagus, or stomach. Notably, it’s the main ingredient in another medical scam in the United States known as Miracle Mineral Solution, or MMS, which has been falsely advertised as a cure for the coronavirus, autism, HIV, influenza, cancer, and more. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers that MMS is dangerous and ingesting it can make them sick.

Virus Shut Out isn’t the first bit of snake oil that’s been peddled as a result of the coronavirus, and it’s likely not going to be the last. What alarms me most about this product is that there still appears to be a demand for it, despite the fact that scientists have clearly established that the coronavirus spreads through close contact, and despite the utter lack of scientific evidence that a packet of bleach worn around a neck could possibly kill viruses in its vicinity.

In early June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Baltimore seized a shipment of unapproved personal protective equipment that included nine packages of Virus Shut Out lanyards. “These products were shipped from manufacturers and distributors in China, Hong Kong, Nigeria, UAE and the United Kingdom and were destined to addresses in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia,” the release noted. Earlier, in April, a Georgia resident was arrested for selling Virus Shut Out on eBay.

The Toamit website lists an address in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania and includes a phone number with a Virginia area code, though this number is not in service. The company did not respond to the Coronavirus Blog’s email in time for publication.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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