There is probably very little in this post new to those who are familiar with homeopathy, but in the hope that its Googlehood might bring it into the hands of current or potential customers, it is presented forthwith.
Oscillococcinum, also known by its shortened and more familiar name Oscillo, is a homeopathic cold remedy. Its maker, Boiron USA, has been advertising it on TV pretty aggressively lately, and it keeps popping up in daily life, so I felt it was worth a skeptical treatment.
According to their website, Oscillo is a 200C dilution of “Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum”, duck liver and heart. If that sounds gross, don’t fret: A 200C dilution means that the water with which the pills were infused contained only one molecule of duck per 100200 molecules of water. Considering that there are only about 10040 atoms in the entire universe, it’s clear that the Oscillo dilution is pure water (chemical purity is considered to be 1 part per 6 × 1023) with no duck molecules whatsoever; in fact it’s many trillions and trillions and googols (10100) of times purer than pure water.
Nevertheless, Boiron calls this a “therapeutically active micro-dose“. It’s not. It is a non-dose. Boiron is being consciously deceptive, either when they call it a micro-dose of anything, or when they label it 200C meaning that it contains no active ingredients. The two are mutually exclusive. It can’t be both a micro-dose and a non-dose.
Like most homeopathic products on the market, Oscillo’s “inactive ingredients” (in fact its only ingredients) are sucrose (85%) and lactose (15%), from which the small sugar pills are made. The “dilution” of pure water is said to be infused into these sugar pills; the principles of homeopathy dictating that the water retains a “spiritual imprint” or “essence” of whatever was once dissolved in it. Homeopaths call this “water memory”.
However, here’s the real kicker: The sugar pills are dry. Whatever water they are alleged to have been infused with — with its claimed cargo of spiritual essence — has evaporated out. Not even the pseudoscience of homeopathy puts forth any postulate that there is any such thing as sugar memory. Thus, not even the faith-based “active ingredient” of homeopathy, this so called spiritual essence, is present in Boiron’s product. The sugar pills contain no water. The water contained no molecules of duck. Molecules of duck have no plausible history of treating colds or any other illness.
Nevertheless, they assert the following on their web site:
Temporarily relieves flu-like symptoms such as feeling run down, headache, body aches, chills and fever.
This is an untrue medical claim. The product has no ability to do any such thing. Usually, promoters claim that homeopathy, and other alternative medicine products that have no therapeutic value, attribute reported effects to the placebo effect. This is all well and good; the placebo effect can indeed improve your perception of your symptoms when it works. You can get a placebo effect from anything that you believe works. However I tend to attribute such effects more to confirmation bias. When something happens that matches our preconceived notions, our beliefs are reinforced. We recover from colds naturally, and feel better in a few days; confirmation bias makes us attribute this improvement to whatever pill we took, even though that pill may have had nothing to do with the natural recovery.
Let’s take a look at Boiron’s main paragraph on their Facts About Oscillococcum page:
Manufactured by Boiron, Oscillococcinum has a long history of efficacy and safety.
Safety? Sure; a sugar pill never hurt anyone. Efficacy? Implausible and unproven (they do claim that clinical trials support their claims, and we’ll look at those in a moment).
Oscillo is used by millions of patients in more than 60 countries.
Millions of people smoke cigarettes too. Wide usage does not prove something is good for you.
In France, where Oscillo has been used for more than 65 years, it is the first flu medicine recommended by pharmacists.
I would like to see the evidence of this. Even if it’s true, pharmacists are not doctors. Pharmacies are retail outlets that make money selling stuff (anything). Colds are not otherwise treatable, so why not sell something that at least does no harm.
It has a remarkable record of safety and can be recommended to patients over age 2 and those who are following other treatments or suffering from chronic conditions. Oscillo will not cause drug interactions or side effects.
Of course. Air will also not cause drug interactions, and smiles have remarkable safety records too.
Four clinical studies, including two which have been published in peer-reviewed journals, show that Oscillo reduces the severity and duration of flu-like symptoms such as feeling run down, headache, body aches, chills and fever.
Is that so? Sounds compelling to the layperson, doesn’t it? Let’s take a look at these four “clinical studies”. They provide no information at all about two of them, so we have no idea what these might have consisted of, who performed them, or what the results were. The third (Papp R, Schuback G, Beck E, et al. Oscillococcinum in patients with influenza-like syndromes: a placebo-controlled, double-blind evaluation. Br Homeopath J. 1998;87:69-76) was published in the British Homeopathic Journal. This is a publication dedicated to the promotion of homeopathy; by no conceivable argument can it be considered a scientific journal. It’s essentially a place for the marketers of homeopathic products to send their press releases in order to be able to say that their research is “published”. The fourth study (Ferley JP, Zmirou D, D’Adhemar D, Balducci F. A controlled evaluation of a homeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenza-like syndromes. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 1989;27:329-335) is from the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, a legitimate journal. This study, which is 22 years old, is one of a minority of a few scattered studies that did find a small statistical improvement in symptoms among homeopathy users compared to a control group who took an identical placebo. It concluded “The result cannot be explained given our present state of knowledge, but it calls for further rigorously designed clinical studies.” Well, further rigorous studies of homeopathy have been performed in the intervening decades, dozens of them. Almost all (well-designed trials published in legitimate journals) show no value in homeopathy. There is always noise in the results of trials. You can’t just look at one; you have to look at many. Again, for Boiron to have cherrypicked this one study, and to have neglected to report the many others that contradict their desired result, which they would have had to dig past, shows conscious deception.
As with all Boiron homeopathic medicines, Oscillo complies with a well-established framework of guidelines, regulations, and quality standards enforced by the FDA through routine pharmaceutical manufacturing site inspections and surveillance on marketed products.
If this is true now, it certainly wasn’t as recently as 2009. Look at this warning letter Boiron received from the FDA for FAILING to comply with the law. The warning letter charges them with numerous violations, and shows that they attempted to capitalize on public fear of the H1N1 virus to sell their product, claiming it could treat it. It can’t.
If you’ve purchased Oscillococcum and feel that you were victimized by deceptive marketing, get your money back. This Boiron page will tell you how.