Echinaforce-mania spreads in Switzerland

The media in German-speaking Switzerland have enthusiastically reported on a study suggesting that Echinaforce® could be effective against SARS-CoV-2, raising doubts in the scientific community.

Promise or mirage?

The media in German-speaking Switzerland have enthusiastically reported the results of a study published in the Virology Journal. This study shows the in vitro effectiveness of Echinaforce® against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Many Swiss pharmacies have been pushed into buying Echinaforce® and this is raising a number of doubts in the scientific community.

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Echinaforce® is a herbal product made from fresh Echinacea purpurea extracts (95% from fresh plant and 5% from fresh root). This food supplement is produced by the Swiss laboratory Vogel.

The results of a recent study conducted at the Federal Laboratory in Spiez (Bern Canton, Switzerland) show that Echinaforce® is virucidal against HCoV-229E, a coronavirus that infects humans and bats, in direct contact and in an organotypic culture model. It has also inactivated MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV-1, and SARS-CoV-2 viruses. 

Therefore it is assumed that preparations of Echinacea purpurea, such as Echinaforce®, could be effective as a prophylactic treatment for all coronaviruses due to their structural similarities.

Olivier Engler is head of the virology group of the Swiss Federal Laboratory in Spiez, a recognized Swiss institute that has a laboratory with biosafety level 4 (BSL-4). According to Engler, who supervised the study, "at a certain level of concentration, Echinaforce® has the ability to deactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus".

The efficacy of Echinaforce® was detected in vitro on human cells from the upper respiratory tract. The data show that the product is capable of inactivating the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, it remains to be seen how the effect can reproduce on a physiological level. The action of Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) on the immune system has already been scientifically proven, but only as a preventive measure, for example against colds. No curative effect on respiratory diseases has been reported.

Caution and skepticism

The study authors point out that this study is only a first step and that no conclusion of clinical relevance can be drawn from it. The manufacturer himself stated in a press release that "at this stage, we do not yet know to what extent the observed in vitro effects are applicable to humans. Studies must continue to establish further evidence on this point". More generally, the scientific community fears the media effect and warns against false hopes.

The spectrum of hydroxychloroquine

For Julien Riou, epidemiologist, (University of Bern, Switzerland), the parallel is obvious. "We must be very wary of in vitro studies. We are barely out of the hydroxychloroquine disaster that started with an in vitro study and it took months and months to prove that it doesn't work. It is a resounding failure. This study is just one signal among many. Let them show us that it works in vivo, and then we can talk about it.

In the meantime, many Swiss Germans have already flocked to pharmacies. The publication of these results looks like a successful advertising stunt, as the study is not about a molecule but a commercial product. This raises several questions, especially in view of the fact that two of the study authors are employed by Vogel and that the study was also partially funded by the company.

1. Blanquart B. Covid-19: l'échinacée, promise ou mirage? 15/09/2020
2. Signer, J., Jonsdottir, H.R., Albrich, W.C. et al. In vitro virucidal activity of Echinaforce®, an Echinacea purpurea preparation, against coronaviruses, including common cold coronavirus 229E and SARS-CoV-2. Virol J 17, 136 (2020).
3. Pierrik J. L'échinacée, nouveau remède miracle suisse contre le Covid-19?. RTS. 14/09/2020 Illarietti D. Scaffali vuoti also in Ticino: "It's going fast". Tio. 14/09/2020.