Oscillococcinum sugar pill packagingThe other day in the checkout line at Whole Foods, I noticed that they were selling Oscillococcinum.  It was a bit of confirmation bias that brought it to my attention because a friend had recently told me that she takes it when she feels sick.  When this friend told me that, I did some research into what, exactly, this homeopathic product is.  I was disturbed by what I found.

According to the manufacturer, Boiron, Oscillo is a “Natural Flu Medicine”.  Boiron cites studies that suggest that taking oscillococcinum can reduce the duration of the flu by about 6 hours.  That’s out of 48 hours for a normal resolution of flu symptoms.  Well, that sounds great, but what’s actually in these pills?

The answer is sugar,  and nothing else.  According to the fact sheet that they give to doctors (and the back of any box),  “each 1 g (0.04 oz.) unit-dose contains 0.85g sucrose [i.e. table sugar] and 0.15g lactose [milk sugar]”. So, we have 85% sucrose and 15% lactose in each pill. So, where’s the medicine?

There is another ingredient listed on the box, couched in some obscure terminology, and that is Anas Barbariae Hepatis et Cordis Extractum 200CK HPUS.  Anas Barbariae is the scientific name for the Muscovy duck.  Hepatis et Cordis Extractum is Latin for “heart and liver extract”. I can’t tell you why it’s all capitalized, it could just as easily read “extract of duck offal”.

What’s really interesting is the “200CK” part of that.  Homeopathic remedies are made by successive dilution of the “active ingredient” and that 200CK tells us just how many times the original substance was diluted (and by what dilution method, too).  200CK, as used in homeopathy, means that there is one part of duck offal per 100200 parts water.  That’s 1 followed by 400 zeroes or googol4. That ridiculously large number means that the chance that there is even one molecule of the duck organs left in your pill (or all of the oscillococcinum pills in the world, actually) is basically zero.  You have a better chance of winning multiple lotteries in the same day.

And I’m not saying anything that the manufacturers don’t acknowledge.  In a 1997 U.S. News and World Report article, a Boiron representative was quoted as saying this about Oscillo,  “Of course it is safe. There’s nothing in it.”

It is a tenet of homoepathy that substance maintain their efficacy even when they are not present.  The idea is that the active substance “imprints” the diluent, passing off its potency.  Of course, there is no known chemical or physical way for one substance to “imprint” another like this.  Personally, I can’t understand how everything hasn’t already been imprinted with everything else.  Surely a muscovy duck died in some water somewhere and the “imprint” of her little heart and liver were mixed into the water cycle.  Since one drop of duck juice in all of the world’s water would be a vastly greater concentration than what you find in these pills, I have to wonder whether I’m not already taking this “medicine”.

Oscillococcinum is regulated by the FDA under homeopathic guidelines which in no way should make you think that it’s efficacy has been scientifically proven.  Boiron, the sugar-pill makers, like to tout a few studies that have been done on oscillococcinum, but elsewhere these studies have been largely dismissed for poor methodology. (See the “efficacy” section of the Wikipedia article for further information on the failings of these studies.) Of course, Boiron is not too eager see more research done, they’re busy selling sugar at a2200% mark-up.  Although they might try to get the $1 million the James Randi Educational Foundation will offer them, or any other producer of homeopathic products,  if they can prove that it works.

What I’ve covered here should be enough to convince anyone that these duck pills are pure quackery.  If you are interested in learning more about how this bizarre fraud came to be, including how it was named after a non-existent bacterium, read this well-written and nicely documented history of oscillococcinum.