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“”Of course it is safe. There's nothing in it.
|—Gina Casey, Boiron spokesperson, on the safety of Oscillococcinum|
Oscillococcinum is a
confectionery a made-up new element homeopathic "drug" manufactured by Boiron, a homeopathic manufacturer headquartered in France, which can allegedly cure symptoms of influenza. It received worldwide attention after claims by its manufacturer that Oscillococcinum can cure the symptoms of bird flu.
The preparation of Oscillococcinum is derived from duck liver and heart, a ratio of one part duck offal to 10400 parts water, Meaning that while most doctors would say that using duck heart to cure the flu is a dubious claim in and of itself, many Oscillococcinums? (or whatever freaking word you would use) do not even contain any duck liver at all. According to homeopathic theory, Homeopaths respond to this claim by stating that the water has a "memory" and molecules leave an imprint in the water that causes a healing effect on the body, although there is no evidence that supports this mechanism or any claims for the efficacy of Oscillococcinum in general beyond placebo.
The process of manufacturing of Oscillococcinum is based on the homeopathic belief "let like be cured by like". It is manufactured from the heart and liver of wild ducks, which are claimed to be the reservoirs for influenza viruses. No evidence has ever been found that Oscillococcinum works, and any of its results are due to the placebo effect and regression to the mean, not to mention that the virus actually lives in the respiratory system of the animal, not the liver. A Cochrane Collaboration meta study of seven trials published in 2000 and updated in 2006 found that evidence did not support the use of Oscillococcium in treatment of influenza, but cited a low size and quality of known trials as a problem, as only two of the seven trials were sufficient to extract the methodology properly.
Nonetheless, current United States Food and Drug Administration regulations permit manufacturers of homeopathic "medicine" to make affirmative health claims. Boiron makes the strong (and false) claim that its Oscillococcinum preparation: "Temporarily reduces duration and severity of flu-like symptoms such as: - body aches - headache - fever - chills - fatigue".
In contrast, were the identical preparation of sugar pills not offered as homeopathic "medicine," the FDA could crack down on offenders to the tune of millions of dollars in fines just as it did makers of pills falsely represented to increase penis size.
The commercially available form of Oscillococcinum is at a dilution of 200C, which means that there is one molecule of active ingredient in a cube over 1055 light years[note 1] on each side. One must consume 10321 times the number of atoms in the observable universe to have a reasonable chance of getting one molecule of the "remedy." In short, whatever you're getting, it ain't duck liver. According to Université de Montréal Chemistry department peer Alexandra Furtos, it's sugar and lactose (milk), leading to a bunch of angry French Canadians suing the manufacturer.
The canonical quack remedy
French doctor and homeopath Joseph Roy was a field medic during the notorious 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. In examining samples under the microscope, Roy identified a new bacterium which he named oscillococcus and decided that this was the cause of the flu. Subsequently he observed the bacterium in other conditions, including cancer patients. According to the homeopathic law of similia he set about creating a "remedy" based on dilutions of the bacterium. In order to do so he needed a reliable source of the bacterium, and in searching for a source he isolated it in a duck. Nowadays, oscillococcinum is prepared from the heart and liver of a Muscovy duck (a different species from Roy's original work).
There are, however, a few minor problems with this.
- The cause of flu is not a bacterium; it's a virus. Roy could not have known this because viruses are so small that they cannot be seen by normal optical microsocopes, and the electron microscope was not invented until after the War. Once it had been invented scientists were able to observe and identify the viruses responsible for diseases such as Spanish flu.
- The oscillococcus bacterium does not exist. The consensus seems to be that Roy was observing air bubbles or some other artifact, which explains the presence of the "bacterium" in so many different conditions which we know to be unrelated.
To this can be added the standard objections to homeopathy, as applied to this specific remedy:
- There is no credible evidence for a generalisable law of similia; this is an ipse dixit axiom promulgated by homeopathy inventor Samuel Hahnemann, based on the fact that when he took cinchona bark it caused him symptoms somewhat akin to those of malaria, for which cinchona bark was known to be an effective remedy (it contains quinine, the name of which comes from the same root). It's the fallacy of hasty generalisation: extending a single data point to assert a universal rule. In addition, the symptoms Hahnemann experienced were probably due to his being allergic to quinine, meaning that even that single data point is worthless!
- The dilution is well beyond absurd and into spectacularly ludicrous. 200C means one molecule of "active ingredient" to 10400 molecules of water. For comparison, there are 1080 atoms in the observable universe. Homeopaths excuse this by using sciencey-sounding words like "quantum" and "nano". The scientific consensus is that homeopathy takes nanoparticles of reality and dilutes it with 6.023 x 1023 quanta of bullshit.
- No homeopath has even tried to come up with a mechanism by which the elusive and objectively in-measurable property conferred on water during the potentisation process, can be conferred to sugar pills, the normal form in which oscillo is offered. The astute observer will notice that sugar has entirely different physical and chemical properties from water. For example, it's solid not liquid, and the molar mass of a glucose molecule is over 180 g/mol, ten times that of water.
Oscillo is an excellent example of a homeopathic remedy that could have allowed the art to show some semblence of rationality. Given that it is founded on a non-existent bacterium which in any case does not cause flu, homeopaths could show their commitment to the law of similiars by ditching oscillo as an error.
The world of reality-based medicine is not holding its breath.
- To give an idea of order of magnitude, the observable part of the universe has a radius of ~4x1010 light years.
- Actually more like a wild duck. "The "active" ingredient of Oscillococcinum is...duck liver and heart. But don't freak out about that...so little actual duck parts are used that a single duck can supply year's worth of Oscillococcinum."
- Homoeopathic Oscillococcinum for preventing and treating influenza and influenza-like syndromes
- Santé Canada homologue des granules homéopathiques qui font l'objet d'une action collective. ici.radio-canada.ca, 4 March 2018.
- Hahnemann's Allergy to Quinine