Strange devices have been cropping up on the lapels of political figures around the world. Sometimes known as Air Doctor and sometimes as Virus Shut Out, they look like normal ID badges. But according to their manufacturers, they use chemicals to wipe out airborne pathogens and protect wearers from disease. 

The cards have been sported as talismans against Covid-19 by a number of prominent people including Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov – until he was hospitalized with the coronavirus last week. Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Áñez was recently spotted with one hanging around her neck. Lebanese political leaders Gebran Bassil and Nabih Berri have also been seen wearing the badges. 

One such device — the Air Doctor — sells for $20.95. It releases small amounts of chlorine dioxide, which its makers say can kill airborne pathogens, including the coronavirus. However, there is so far only anecdotal evidence that Covid-19 can spread in this way. 

Air Doctor’s representatives maintain that the device does not protect the wearer against person-to-person transmission, which, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, is the main way the virus is contracted. 

Dr. Ali Habib, Air Doctor’s spokesperson for the Middle East and United States, told me that the device would have no beneficial effect if an infected person coughed or sneezed near to the wearer. He added: “If you touch an infected surface, the Air Doctor would be useless to you.”  

He explained that, despite its name, the Air Doctor was “not a medical device or a pharmaceutical product.”

According to Dr. Kristóf Kály-Kullai, an assistant professor at Budapest University of Technology, chlorine dioxide can kill airborne viruses, but such devices could only be of any benefit “if the person in question is stationary in a not-too-big, closed room.”

Kály-Kullai, who has worked on patents involving chlorine dioxide and is also employed by a disinfectant company, went on to explain that as soon as the person moves, or goes outside, wearing an Air Doctor becomes pointless.  

Governments around the world, alongside the World Health Organization, emphasize that simple measures, such as wearing a mask, washing your hands and wiping down surfaces with disinfectant remain the most effective countermeasures against the coronavirus. 

Other scientists have been more blunt: when Virus Shut Out badges began to appear on display in Hong Kong stores in March, virologist and immunologist Dr Ariane Davison told the Hong Kong Free Press that they were “a complete scam.”

“There are a lot of politicians wearing our products – we don’t promote it or ask them to,” said Habib. He estimates around half a million Air Doctors have been sold to individuals and institutions in the U.S. and Middle East since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Air Doctor has also been publicized on Facebook and Instagram in recent months. “We have good engagement, we are highly interactive with our customers,” Habib added.

Chlorine dioxide-based “virus blockers” were originally created in Japan. They have been banned in Vietnam and Thailand, but are on sale in Hong Kong, the Middle East, Russia, and the U.S. under a number of different brand names.

In April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned people to avoid products containing chlorine dioxide, saying that its ingestion by a number of individuals as a prophylactic against the virus has resulted in “serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.” 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has banned Virus Shut Out badges from entering domestic ports, and instructed Amazon to remove the product from their site. 

Last month, when President Donald Trump made comments suggesting that injecting disinfectant could treat the coronavirus, supporters in conspiracy circles such as QAnon jumped at the notion that he was referring to chlorine dioxide — the chemical compound has long been touted and sold by fringe figures as a cure for everything from HIV to the common cold.

Britt Marie Hermes, a former naturopathic practitioner who became a staunch critic of alternative medicine in 2015, expressed concerns about the potential financial burden such products place on low-income groups with limited access to healthcare.  

“If you could only spend $100 on healthcare and you’re choosing to spend that on supplements and therapies that you don’t need, you might not have the money to pursue conventional care later,” she said. 

“During periods of economic and political insecurity, I think we’re going to see people turning to things they can have a sense of control over, and alternative medicine makes that promise. That can be really reassuring, but it’s false reassurance.”