When Andrew Sinclair caught Covid-19 in March 2020, he started experimenting with home remedies. “I did the research online [about] all the natural immune boosters out there,” he says. He made a list of the ingredients and started trying them one by one. “Simple stuff, just boil them and drink it,” he says. Soon, Earth Tea was born. It’s a product the exact composition of which Sinclair won’t reveal, but it includes aloe vera, honey, and herbs. For the cool price of $60 for a 16-ounce bottle, he said he could cure Covid. The feds say he’s just the latest person to sell “snake oil” to people desperate for medical treatment.
On Thursday, the Department of Justice announced it was taking civil action against Sinclair and his business, accusing him of exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic by improperly marketing a tea as a cure without “competent and reliable scientific bases for these claims.” The complaint, filed in partnership with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, alleges the company’s “use of deceptive advertising and misinformation, exploiting fears in the midst of a pandemic to sell their product to concerned consumers, poses a significant risk to public health and safety.”
“Unfortunately, there are too many people who are taking advantage of this crisis by pushing alleged treatment products that are nothing more than snake oil,” said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace for the Eastern District of New York in a statement. “We will not tolerate attempts to make a dishonest dollar while putting our communities at risk during a pandemic.”
No peer-reviewed scientific studies to date have suggested that vitamins or supplements can cure Covid or reduce its symptoms. Although there is evidence that Vitamin C and Zinc may lessen the severity and duration of a cold, a study of the vitamins in people with Covid showed they had no effect. Likewise, Vitamin D has been linked to immune health, but high doses of the vitamin brought no benefit to people with moderate to severe Covid, a study found.
That hasn’t stopped Sinclair from making grand claims. The DOJ complaint includes several screen grabs from the company’s social media pages with statements calling it an “all-natural instant immune booster clinical trial proves it’s effective against Covid-19.” The company’s old sales page offered a money-back guarantee if two bottles of Earth Tea did not result in a negative Covid test.
Sinclair repeatedly cites a 15-person study he says he paid to have performed in India as evidence that his product has undergone a “clinical trial.” In it, he says, 14 out of 15 people who had Covid were cured after drinking just two eight-ounce doses of Earth Tea. He posted a page-by-page copy of the purported study on the company’s website. One page reads, “The results obtained in this study clearly demonstrate the efficacy of a The Product is a Earth Tea.” The DOJ argues that whether the results are legitimate or not, 15 people is not a large enough research group for the study to be considered “competent and reliable scientific evidence” of the claims Sinclair makes.
Sinclair is originally from Jamaica, and runs his business out of his brother’s motorcycle repair shop in Brooklyn. “If you grew up up north, you have no idea of what vegetables can do because you probably never see vegetables around you,” he says. “People in the Caribbean grew up in a different environment where they have access to all these things that can help them naturally.” He says his own community trusts the product, even if no one else does. “Jamaicans know that if I’m a Jamaican and I come to you and I say listen. Yo, this is it, I’m not going to tell you no BS,” he says.
During the pandemic, distrust of the vaccine has been high in Black communities, in part due to the American healthcare system’s racist history. Sinclair says he doesn’t have anything against traditional medicine. “I go to the doctor every year to do my blood work and check whatever,” he says. He did choose not to get a Covid vaccine, but says he doesn’t mind that his daughter did. “I’m not against the vaccine,” he says.
He says he has tried to tell various agencies about the treatment he’s created, but he feels shut out by the halls of science and government. He wrote to the FDA, the CDC, and the Trump administration in April 2020, he says. “‘I put this thing together,’” he says he wrote. “‘It’s all natural and it seems to work.’ And nobody responded.” He showed Rolling Stone a form email he got in Nov. 2021 from President Joe Biden thanking him for writing to the White House about Covid-19. “He responded and said he will keep our idea in his thoughts,” Sinclair says.
Sinclair’s professed belief in his product’s miracle properties aside, he says he has stopped referring to Covid in advertisements. He hopes that solves his problem with the DOJ. On Friday morning, the company website still suggested the tea made with aloe and honey might be used to treat everything from erectile dysfunction to HIV. By Friday evening, that information had been taken down.
Kevin Skinner, the chef and owner of Rain Eatery and Juice Bar in the Little Caribbean neighborhood of Brooklyn, offers wellness shots that he designed to help boost customers’ immune systems. “In the news, you never hear anything about eating well, boosting your immune system, or taking your vitamins,” he says. He says he’d never market any juice as helping with Covid, though.
In early 2021, the complaint says, the FTC and FDA warned the maker of Earth Tea that statements on its website and Twitter page, including “our official formula now 100% guarantee to get rid of #Covid19,” were illegal because the company lacked scientific evidence. The product was considered an “unapproved new drug” and “a misbranded drug,” the FDA warned, and together the agencies ordered the company to stop making such claims. The company stopped advertising a Covid cure briefly, the complaint alleges, but resumed by April 2021, and ignored a Sept. 2021 warning that its unsubstantiated claims violated the FTC Act and the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act.
“Products like this may delay patients from seeking proven treatments from their health care provider,” the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, Judy McMeekin, said in a statement. “Preying on patients’ vulnerabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic is unacceptable.”