Bolivia’s president wore a “virus blocker.” Then, she got Covid-19

The interim leader was one of many politicians around the world who wore a badge containing chemicals that claimed to protect against coronavirus


In May, Coda Story reported on the unproven chemical devices that claimed to protect people from Covid-19. Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Añez was one of the politicians around the world who wore one in public. She has now tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Añez is the second Latin American leader to test positive for coronavirus, following Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro last week. She is also one of many politicians around the world who have been spotted wearing a “virus blocker” badge – an unproven device that claims to “sanitize” the air around the wearer and protect them from Covid-19. 

“I have tested positive for Covid19, I am OK, I will work from home,” Añez tweeted on Friday. “Together, let’s get ahead.”

Sold under various guises as a “virus shut out” or “air doctor” badge, Añez was seen wearing the device around her neck while attending the delivery of protective equipment back in May.

In Bolivia, advertisements for the devices have been circulating on WhatsApp and Facebook, where they’re available for around $17. One Facebook ad falsely claimed the device could “eliminate the threat” of Covid-19. “Don’t take risks, avoid contagions,” the advert warned. 

The devices, which contain the chemical chlorine dioxide, were originally created in Japan. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have also been spotted on politicians including South Sudan President Salva Kiir, Lebanese politicians Gebran Bassil and Nabih Berri, and Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov – who also fell ill with the virus in early May and has since recovered

In Indonesia, the Minister for Agriculture Syahrul Yasin Limp has jumped on the global popularity of the badges by announcing the launch of an Indonesian version, using eucalyptus instead of chlorine dioxide. 

The “virus blocker” devices have come under fire from the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., which banned it from entering its ports in April. Andrew Wheeler, an EPA administrator said in a statement of the time that the agency was taking steps to ban “dishonest subjects from selling fraudulent and illicit items that do not serve to protect Americans against the coronavirus.”

Makers of a version of the device told Coda Story in May that they had already sold half a million of the products since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The World Health Organization says practicing social distancing, hand-washing, and wearing a mask are the best forms of protection against the coronavirus.

Illustration by Sofiya Voznaya

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell