This story was republished on Jan. 14, 2022 to make it free for all readers
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said this week that mouthwash is one way to protect from COVID-19 but the manufacturer of Listerine and medical experts say studies of the idea haven't yet concluded it's a proven antidote.
Johnson in a town hall event on Wednesday said a "standard gargle" of mouthwash "has been proven to kill the coronavirus" or may reduce viral replication to help protect from a serious surge of COVID-19 cases.
"Why not try all these things?" he said, including mouthwash in a list of alternatives to COVID-19 vaccines and face masks, like taking supplements of Vitamin D, Vitamin C and Zinc.
In a statement to the Journal Sentinel, Johnson said he was not suggesting vitamins or mouthwash was a replacement for COVID-19 vaccines.
"I did not say that taking vitamins, using mouthwash, would be a replacement for the vaccine, should you choose to get one. There are multiple studies that say mouthwash may reduce viral load," Johnson said. "Even Dr. Fauci said, ‘I would not mind recommending, and I do it myself, taking vitamin D supplements.’ I continue to be amazed at the resistance to anything that might reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.”
Johnson regularly promotes unproven remedies for COVID-19 and expresses doubt in proven ways to combat the pandemic like vaccines. In this case, Listerine mouthwash's effect on disrupting the virus is being studied but its manufacturer and medical experts said the research has not produced the conclusion Johnson suggested to his constituents on Wednesday.
"We are aware of several ongoing, independent clinical trials where LISTERINE® is being assessed in patients with COVID-19. However, the current available data is not sufficient to support a conclusion that the use of LISTERINE® mouthwash is helpful against the COVID-19 virus," said a statement from Johnson & Johnson shared with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"Our understanding of the course of COVID-19 disease transmission continues to evolve. Overall, more research is needed to understand whether use of mouthwashes can impact viral transmission, exposure, viral entry, viral load and ultimately affect meaningful clinical outcomes or have a public health impact."
Johnson & Johnson officials said it would "consider further investment in lab and clinical studies with trusted collaborators, playing an important role in understanding the interaction between oral care and the COVID-19 virus in the mouth."
Ben Weston, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Chief Health Policy Adviser for Milwaukee County, said mouthwash kills germs in a person's mouth but "it does not have the same effect on the rest of your body."
"The COVID-19 virus enters through the nasal passages and can ravage your lungs, causing difficulty breathing. It can damage your heart causing scarring and decreased cardiac function. It can damage the lining of your blood vessels causing clotting. It can damage your kidneys, leading to long term organ failure. It can damage your reproductive system, leading to poor birth outcomes and erectile dysfunction. The list goes on," Weston said. "We need to focus on prevention that works. The COVID vaccines are safe, they are effective and they are free."
Weston said vaccines make it less likely to get infected in the first place, less likely to transmit the virus to someone else, less likely to experience serious illness after infection, and less likely to get hospitalized or die of the virus.
Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said no one is discouraging the use of the remedies Johnson is proposing but the public should know they are not proven to be effective in protecting against COVID-19 infection.
"Things like home remedies, vitamins and supplements, new diets have been advertised to and used by people in our society for decades, centuries even, for all sorts of ailments. No one is discouraging their use, but they do not provide tangible benefit against Covid, and they are not a substitute for vaccination," Sethi said.
'Not appropriate for any virus'
Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer of population health at the University of Washington, said Johnson's suggestion to turn to vitamins and mouthwash "is not appropriate for any virus."
"Our recommendations are for folks to get vaccinated (3 doses, get a booster as soon as they are eligible), wear a mask (good quality mask and wear it correctly), watch their distance, avoid gathering, and wash hands," Mokdad said by email.
In his comments on Wednesday, Johnson criticized the National Institutes of Health for focusing on the recommendation to get vaccinated against the virus.
Patrick Remington, a former epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's preventive medicine residency program, said the NIH relies on proven treatments.
"Simply put, the NIH and other researchers set a high bar for proving that a treatment is effective. Studies done in the lab or in animals, or clinical anecdotes play an important part in the research process, and lead to hypotheses that are then tested in rigorous, controlled trials," Remington said.
"It would boggle my mind if we skipped this critical step, and instead practiced medicine based only on hunches and best guesses. We need to be patient and let the scientific process play out, and make sure that we first do no harm."
Sethi noted 200 million Americans have chosen to take the advice of the CDC, NIH, and numerous medical and scientific experts to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Ron Johnson touts mouthwash to kill COVID. Get vaccinated, experts say