Google searches spike for COVID-19 cure
Google searches for ways to buy unproven COVID-19 drugs spiked by more than 1000 per cent during the pandemic, new research revealed today.
Medical experts have now warned that the dangerous trend underlines the need for reliable health information to be amplified online during a health crisis.
Endorsements of untested and inconclusive drug treatments by entrepreneur Elon Musk and US President Donald Trump both inspired huge spikes in web searches for the medicines, according to the study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, as did the first fatal poisoning by someone who took one of the medicines advertised without medical advice.
University of California computational epidemiologist Dr John Ayers said he launched the study after massive public attention was drawn to malarial medicines chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as potential treatments for coronavirus even though were untested, could have "toxic effects" on the cardiovascular system, and could be confused with chemicals used in aquarium cleaners.
Dr Ayers said he combined information on Google searches along with keywords such as "buy," "order," "Amazon," and "Walmart" to identify spikes in public interest, and found the drugs' public endorsements led to dangerous online behaviour.
The study found purchasing interest in chloroquine soared by 442 per cent between February and March, while interest in buying hydroxychloroquine without a prescription jumped by a startling 1389 per cent.
"In times of public health crises, therapies not supported by adequate evidence … should not be touted by public figures," Dr Ayers wrote.
"Endorsements can lead to unsupervised use of the products with dangerous consequences to the people who take them, and hoarding of these medications can result in shortages for those who require them for legitimate health reasons.
"These negative consequences are magnified in this circumstance because chloroquine-containing products are commercially available to the public through such sites as Amazon."
Google searches for the medication even spiked a third time after reports of chloroquine poisoning.
Nigerian officials announced three people had overdosed on the medication on March 23.
Dr Ayers said although Google added "an educational website (to) search results related to the outbreak," further warnings and restrictions by the company and online marketplaces selling these drugs should be introduced to prevent harm.
Neither drug has been approved by health authorities for treating COVID-19, with one study by Brazilian and Spanish researchers halted high-dose tests of the drugs early due to the deaths of 22 participants.
America's Federal Drug Administration also issued a warning about the medication, saying it was "aware of reports of serious heart rhythm problems in patients" trialling the medicines.
The warnings also come a week after Mr Trump questioned whether disinfectants could be used to treat COVID-19 "by an injection inside or almost a cleaning," an announcement that has reportedly led to an increase in calls to US poison hotlines.
Originally published as Google searches spike for COVID-19 cure