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Impact of Coronavirus on the Natural Products Industry

Albion Minerals®

The new strain of coronavirus grabbing headlines and generating health concerns around the world was given an official name by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Feb. 11, 2020: COVID-19.

Back in December 2019, the virus was first reported in Wuhan, China, and was traced to a novel strain.  The COVID-19 virus, in some instances, can cause pneumonia, kidney failure, severe acute respiratory syndrome—and even death in the most severe cases.

As of mid-February 2020, COVID-19 had reportedly spread to more than 40,000 individuals worldwide (mostly in China), and which included 13 confirmed cases at that time within six U.S. states: Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin.

More than 1,000 deaths are attributed so far to COVID-19, although just one death related to the virus has been reported outside of China as VR went to press.  The death toll attributable to coronavirus has already exceeded the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic. SARS, it should be noted, is a different strain of coronavirus.

There is currently no known cure for the COVID-19 virus, and no vaccine treatment is expected for at least 18 more months according to WHO.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers several tips for prevention and treatment, such as washing hands often with soap and water; avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; and advocating for the use of a facemask by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to protect others from the risk of getting infected.  An increasing number of Americans (most notably in big cities and airports) have indeed taken to wearing face masks in the hope of avoiding the coronavirus.

Industry Reaction

Within the natural products industry, one impact of the coronavirus has been a growing consumer demand for natural “cold and flu” and “immune” products, including certain vitamins, herbal supplements and products touted for enhancing the immune system. However, reports have also surfaced of a few unscrupulous online companies attempting to sell “coronavirus cures,” which brought strong condemnation by the Natural Products Association (NPA) and other trade organizations.

In a January 27, 2020 letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), NPA president and CEO Daniel Fabricant, PhD, said that “consumers should steer clear of any product being marketed as a nutritional supplement that says it will prevent, treat or cure coronavirus or any other illness.”  He added that consumers concerned about unfounded label claims should report the product manufacturer to the FDA.

Jim Griffiths, PhD, senior vice president, international & scientific affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), illustrated the concerns of manufacturers and consumers while seconding Fabricant’s comments.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty on the ground in China, as far as manufacturing, processing, packaging, shipping, etc.,” he noted.  “The consumer is always concerned about what they can be doing to protect themselves—I’ve seen people wearing two or three layers of masks, hoping that if one doesn’t filter it out, maybe two or three might, so there is always that segment of the population looking for something that will alleviate the situation.”  However, he stressed that dietary supplements and natural remedies “cannot be touted as preventative or curable to this virus.”

Retail Impact

While dietary supplements should never be sold to prevent, treat, cure or prevent a disease, many products on health food store shelves are in particularly high demand during the annual “cold and flu season” in the U.S.  This includes such “go-to” winter season items as elderberry, oregano, olive leaf, black seed oil, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin E, medicinal mushrooms, and a variety of general “wellness” and “immune enhancing” formulations.

A quick scan of VR‘s most recent “Hot Sellers” list reveals a number of such products selling particularly well at natural products stores this winter, such as Oligonol by Quality of Life, Elderberry Concentrate by Wyldewood Cellars, Hempanol and Super Strength Oreganol P73 by North American Herb & Spice, Immuno-Shield by Irwin Naturals, Adrenaplex by Terry Naturally and more.

Various retailers reached by VR mentioned they see more customers expressing concerns over the coronavirus.  Dr. Eunice Green of Green’s Nutrition (Stockton, CA) told VR that she advises people to avoid “over-stressing about the situation,” while typically recommending black seed oil and doTerra’s On Guard Essential Oil for immune health.

Dianna Singh, owner of Elk Grove Vitamins (Elk Grove, CA) and Cameron Park Vitamins (Cameron Park, CA), observed that “the coronavirus has definitely made its way here in the states as a topic of conversation. With the population being mostly retired at one of our locations, they do quite a bit of overseas traveling. Having two locations makes it very interesting because of the dynamics of community that is largely semi-retired/retired versus working class/family orientated.”

She continued, “Regardless of the type of virus/flu, we approach our customers with the same intentions, meaning gut health and immunity are the most crucial elements for your body’s healthy response. At that point, we would then suggest the supplements to boost their immune [system]. We carry a wide range, from items that are their essential ‘travel kits’ and ‘must haves,’ which include tea tree, activated charcoal, D3, vitamin C.

“Then the heavy hitters are in a different league,” Singh said. “With clinically studied formulas, those suggestions that would be considered are ViraPro (Terry Naturally), Propolis Extract (Terry Naturally) along with Jarro-Dophilus EPS (Jarrow Formulas). As always, diet is key! Immunity is key to the gut and food is just as important.”

Travis Lemon, herbalist and owner of Tulsi at the Market in Huntington, WV, noted his store has had “a lot of questions” about immune supporting supplements recently.  “My big four for immune support are oregano oil, andrographis, olive leaf and elderberry,” Lemon noted.

Lemon added that “making sure to cover your bases with vitamin C, vitamin D and a high-quality probiotic is always a good idea when addressing any seasonal wellness concerns.”

Christian Olson, manager for Total Health Nutrition Center (Menomonee Falls and New Berlin, WI), commented that “we do regularly receive immune questions and we regularly recommend immune builders like elderberry, propolis, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D, black cumin seed, graviola, and apricot seed kernels.” He added that, ”one item stands out by the name of Source Naturals Wellness Formula. I call it the kitchen sink formula for immunity.”

As for U.S. nutritional and herbal ingredient suppliers and manufacturers that do business or source materials in China, travel restrictions into the country have made things more difficult.  California-based Nuherbs, which offers traditional Chinese medicine herbal ingredients, noted that airfreight is one of several major concerns they are dealing with, especially since Cathay Pacific Airways (based in Hong Kong) has cut its capacity by at least 50 percent through March.

“For Nuherbs specifically,” noted Wilson Lau, Nuherbs’ vice president, “our first priority is to make sure all our people are safe, and that the proper actions be taken to safeguard the general public. In terms of our ability to supply material, in the short term our customers’ needs will be met on a timely basis. We’re China experts, so we always plan in advance for the Chinese New Year shutdown. We had material landed right before the New Year so we have enough stock on hand.”

He added, “We made commitments to farmers last fall to acquire herbs that meet our standards, and this material was processed to our specs immediately after harvest. It’s ready and waiting to be shipped, once this situation passes.”

Issues surrounding travel are also affecting one of the world’s largest natural products shows—the upcoming Natural Products Expo West.  For example, the Chinese Health Products Association (HPA-China) is set to host its annual China Dietary Supplement Market Overview Event at this year’s Expo West in Anaheim, CA, but HPA said that a couple of speakers will most likely will not be able to travel to the U.S. from China due to the travel ban. In that case, HPA-China executive director Jeff Crowther will present the speakers’ content.

Among other manufacturers who spoke to VR was EuroPharma (Green Bay, WI), makers of the Terry Naturally brand of supplements.  “The emerging news about the illness caused by the coronavirus has heightened awareness in both retailers and consumers of the need for the best possible healthy immune system defense,” said Cheryl Myers, chief of scientific affairs. “Since retailers cannot discuss prevention or treatment of this disease with supplements, it is much better to focus on how to protect the immune system in general. There’s always a higher demand for immune support supplements this time of year, or any time there is a widely-publicized health issue that puts a spotlight on our need for powerful defense.”

Myers reiterated some essential tips for prevention. “The best thing that anyone can do to stay healthy is to take care of their overall health with a sensible diet, restorative sleep, and I cannot emphasize enough the need for hand washing.”

Meanwhile, homeopathic remedy company Boiron USA (Newton Square, PA) advised strongly that its products not be used toward directly treating the coronavirus.  “The 2019 Novel Coronavirus is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation,” said Alissa Gould, the company’s director of corporate communications & public affairs. “Neither Oscillococcinum or any Boiron product has been tested against this emerging virus. Boiron discourages the use of any of its products intended for over-the-counter or self-treatable conditions to be used for the treatment or prevention of coronavirus symptoms, since the CDC reports that confirmed infections of reported illnesses have ranged from people with little to no symptoms to people being severely ill and dying. Boiron strongly recommends retailers and consumer [s] alike follow the advice of government officials and health care providers during all health crisis such as this.”

Risk of Flu

However, it is important for retailers and consumers alike to note that flu ought to be at the top of the priority list, at is both more prevalent and likely to impact Americans than COVID-19.

An additional 2,000 Americans—10 of them children—have died from the flu since the last reporting period, according to the weekly flu report from the CDC.

The surveillance report for the week ending Feb. 1 shows flu activity increased in many reporting areas. In addition, the report shows 22 million Americans have suffered from the flu, and that 12,000 adults and 78 children have died during this flu season, which began in October.

“While coronavirus has dominated much of the conversation, that vigilance should be balanced with the understanding that influenza is more prevalent and much more likely to impact Americans,” said Libby Richards, an associate professor of nursing at Purdue University.

Albion Minerals®