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Supplements from China: Coronavirus Risk?
Question: Can I get the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) from supplements from China?
Answer: Many of the ingredients used in dietary supplements come from China. Even supplements that are "made in the U.S." may include ingredients from China, where the 2019 Novel Coronavirus or 2019-nCoV (causing the disease known as COVID-19) is believed to have originated. Due to temporary shutdowns of businesses in some areas of China, there may be disruptions in the supply of these ingredients from China. There is no requirement for a dietary supplement to list the country of origin of its ingredients, so your question is a valid one.
However, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), "In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures." "Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of 2019-nCoV associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of 2019-nCoV in the United States associated with imported goods."
How long does coronavirus last on surfaces?
More needs to be learned about this new virus, but, currently there is no reason to believe that you can catch it from a dietary supplement. A more likely, but still remote, concern would be exposure to coronavirus from handling the packaging of a supplement shortly after it was handled by unclean hands of an infected person, and then touching one's mouth, eyes, or nose without first washing one's hands. A study found that 2019-nCoV (also called SARS-CoV-2) has a half-life (at about 72° F and 40% relative humidity) of 6.8 hours on plastic and 3.5 hours on cardboard, such that the amount of virus is undetectable in 3 days on plastic but within just 1 day on cardboard. (Interestingly, the virus was undetectable on stainless steel after about 2 days but within just 4 hours on copper.) (van Dormalen, NEJM (correspondence) 2020).
A review of past studies of coronaviruses (which did not include the more recent SARS-CoV-2 virus) indicated that they survive on surfaces longer at colder temperatures. For example, an experiment found that at 39° Fahrenheit, a type of coronavirus known as TGEV remained detectable on steel for more than a month, but this fell to 3 to 28 days at 68° and to only 4 to 96 hours at 104° (Kampf, J Hosp Infect 2020). This also suggests that if you are going to refrigerate or freeze a supplement that you recently obtained, either throw away or disinfect the outer packaging first.
How effective are disinfectants against coronavirus?
The same review of coronavirus research noted above found that the most effective disinfectants for coronaviruses were 62 - 71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide, and 0.1% sodium hypochlorite (the main active ingredient in bleach). Less effective was benzalkonium chloride, which is the key active ingredient in alcohol-free hand sanitizers like Purell and Germ-X as well as being an ingredient in some wipes like Wet Ones. Chlorhexidine digluconate was not effective against coronaviruses, although it is also a key ingredient in some antiseptic wipes (it is more commonly found in prescription mouthwashes). [For more about disinfecting, see the list of products that meet EPA's criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2.]
Ingredient quality is a greater concern
Problems that are more likely to be of concern with ingredients from China, as well as other parts of the world, relate to their inherent quality and purity. In 2019, 50% of Chinese manufacturing facilities inspected by the FDA were out of compliance with regulations, particularly by failing to follow procedures meant to ensure ingredient quality. Interestingly, an even higher percentage of U.S. facilities -- 52% -- were out of compliance. For this reason, all products that ConsumerLab reviews are tested for key compounds relating to their identity, and products that include significant amounts of whole herbs or minerals are tested for heavy metals.
Be aware that many supplements are being promoted online to boost the immune system and prevent or treat the coronavirus, and some websites and social media posts are recommending taking dangerously high doses of certain vitamins and minerals. Learn more about the evidence, and safety of supplements being promoted to fight COVID-19.