Miracle cures: Online conspiracy theories are creating a new age of unproven medical treatments

Jan 31, 2024, 7:35 AM

An Amish woman from Ohio floats with a pool noodle among BioHealing generators at the Tesla Wellnes...

An Amish woman from Ohio floats with a pool noodle among BioHealing generators at the Tesla Wellness Hotel and MedBed Center on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, in Butler, Pa. Tesla Biohealing — which has no connection to the car company — is part of a growth industry marketing unproven cures and treatments to conspiracy theorists and others who have grown distrustful of science and medicine. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

BUTLER, Pa. (AP) — The hotel on the outskirts of town looks a lot like lodging one can find on any American highway. Over the years it has been a Holiday Inn and a Days Inn. The sign outside now bears the brand of a new, growing chain. One that promises a lot more than a good night’s sleep.

At the Tesla Wellness Hotel and Medbed Center, about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh, the enticements are nothing short of miraculous.

Part motel, part new-age clinic, the facility offers nightly rentals in rooms that come equipped with “biohealers” –- canisters that the company claims exude “life force energy,” or biophotons. Testimonials from the company’s patients speak to the devices’ power to treat cancer, dementia, chronic pain and a long list of other ailments.

The center also sells the canisters for home use. Prices start at $599 and range all the way to $11,000 for the largest model, with slightly cheaper versions available for pets and children.

Just don’t call the thousands of people who have shelled out big bucks to Tesla “patients.” Dr. James Liu, the physician who founded Tesla, doesn’t like the term -– perhaps the first clue that what he’s selling goes far beyond the abilities of traditional medicine.

“We are not a clinic, not a doctor’s office,” said Liu, who earned a medical degree in China and a Ph.D. in human nutrition at Penn State University. “For me, for the company, I always call them customers.”

Tesla Biohealing, which has no connection to the car company, is part of a growth industry marketing unproven cures and treatments to conspiracy theorists and others who have grown distrustful of science and medicine. Experts who study such claims say they’re on the increase, thanks to the internet, social media and skepticism about traditional health care.

“There have always been hucksters selling medical cures, but I do feel like it’s accelerating,” said Timothy Caulfield, a health policy and law professor at the University of Alberta who studies medical ethics and fraud. “There are some forces driving that: obviously the internet and social media, and distrust of traditional medicine, traditional science. Conspiracy theories are creating and feeding this distrust.”

Blending the high-tech jargon of Western science with the spiritual terminology of traditional and Eastern medicine, these modern salesmen claim their treatments can reverse aging, restore mental acuity or fight COVID-19 better than a vaccine. They promise better health, but what they’re really selling is the idea of insider information, the promise of a secret known only to the wealthy and the powerful.

So-called medbeds are one of the flashiest, most expensive, and least credible. “Medbeds are coming,” exclaims a woman in one TikTok video. Similar videos have been seen millions of times on the platform.

According to believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, medbeds were developed by the military (in some versions, using alien technology) and are already in use by the world’s richest and most powerful families. Many accounts claim former President Donald Trump, if he wins another term in the White House, will unveil the devices and make them free for all Americans.

Whole message boards on Telegram are devoted to discussions about medbeds, and the latest rumors about when and where they will arrive.

“I’m desperately seeking any help from all to answer my prayers to a cure for my son’s cancer,” wrote one woman on another Telegram channel created by medbed conspiracy theorists in New Jersey.

For those waiting for medbeds to arrive, Tesla BioHealers may be tempting alternative, though one that comes with a cost.

A one-night stay in a “highly-energized” room at the Tesla complex in Butler runs for $300. The rooms look like any other motel room, although a look beneath the bed reveals several of the biohealers placed underneath. The company runs seven other medbed centers in other states and its devices are used at several other “partner” facilities operated by other businesses.

Inside the canisters? A mix of “fine naturally active stones and activated fine metal, grout, sands and proprietary polymers that are manufactured with a special technology,” according to the company.

In addition to the biohealers, the company also sells bottled water — 24-packs of 16.9 ounce bottles of Tennessee spring water — for $150. The company says the water has been imbued with “life force energy” that can increase energy and libido, improve breathing, digestion and sleep, reduce pain and lead to “vivid dreams to indicate enhanced brain activity.”

At WalMart, a 24-pack of 16.9 ounce of generic brand water bottles retails for less than $4.

Online testimonials from Tesla’s customers speak to the life-changing power of the company’s products, with gushing superlatives such as “It worked miracles!” But experts and scientists who have studied the company’s claims say there’s no scientific evidence to support them.

Tesla acknowledges the facts in its terms of service: “Tesla BioHealing does not provide any medical advice,” the fine print says. “Our products… are not intended to replace your physicians’ care, diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition.”

Liu told The Associated Press that he was unfamiliar with the medbed conspiracy theory when he named his company and that he isn’t trying to exploit gullible people who want to believe medbeds are real. He said 40,000 people have used his devices so far, and that he believes the cannisters can treat about 80% of all disease.

Given the primary importance of health, it’s hardly surprising that unproven medical claims and products that seem too-good-to-be-true have a long history in America. More than a century ago, hucksters peddled magic elixirs from wagons. Decades later, electricity sparked a brief craze in electric belts and magnet suits as a supposed cure for anxiety, paralysis or sexual problems. In the 1920s, a quack named John Brinkley became a household name by implanting goat testicles into the bodies of patients complaining of infertility and impotence. He later lost his medical license after he was exposed as a fraud.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the back pages of magazines were filled with ads for mail-order diet pills and supplements that made promises not backed up by the facts.

Today the same claims are made online, where they’ve found a niche audience among conspiracy theorists and others distrustful of science and traditional medicine. “Shop Now!” reads the website of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who sells supplements and vitamins alongside survival gear and emergency food rations.

These online communities were thriving long before the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw an explosion of false claims about vaccines, communicable diseases and even basic medical science.

And as the adherents’ suspicion of traditional medicine, the media and the government has grown, more people are willing to put their faith in untested treatments and unproven claims.

In some cases, that faith can have deadly results. Last year, a Florida preacher and members of his family were convicted for selling a COVID-19 cure that was actually toxic industrial bleach. Others have died after ingesting other unproven COVID-19 cures such as chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine, which was promoted by Trump as president. Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and immunization have also spurred opposition to the lifesaving vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration maintains an online database of unproven or harmful treatments that it has identified, including unapproved treatments for COVID-19 that contain harmful chemicals, autism “cures” that include raw camel milk and the ingestion of dangerous heavy metals, and medications that supposedly cure all cancer.

“ Distrust of government and distrust of major institutions makes people vulnerable,” said Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist and expert in unproven medical claims who launched the organization Quackwatch in the 1970s to highlight medical scams. “But there are other factors too: Some people are desperate for help and they don’t know what to believe.”

Health care fraud is big business, and the largest source of civil fines and penalties for fraud paid to the federal government last year — more than $5 billion. Most investigations and prosecutions focused on schemes to defraud public health programs such as Medicaid and Medicare or the billions of dollars set aside for COVID-19. As a result, low-level hucksters or those peddling unproven treatments often don’t get as much attention.

Liu and other Tesla employees are quick to defend their work, arguing they are only giving people alternatives to a medical system many no longer trust.

Like the automotive company owned by Elon Musk, Tesla BioHealing is named for Nikola Tesla, the 19th-century inventor and early electrical pioneer who, who like Musk, has become a favorite of many conspiracy theorists.

Many of Tesla Biohealing’s customers have grown frustrated with the answers they get from doctors, said Seth Robinson, a chiropractor who directs Tesla’s clinic in Delaware. Asked to describe a typical Tesla patient, Robinson doesn’t hesitate.

“Desperate, desperate, desperate is the word,” he said. “A lot of times people will come here, they will have anti-medicine thoughts, feelings. We’re not anti-medicine. We believe medicine has a place. But medicine has a limitation.”

Tesla’s claims have attracted the interest of federal regulators. In August, the FDA wrote to the company demanding responses to questions about its devices and their supposed medical benefits. Liu said his company takes the letter seriously and is working on its response.

Among other concerns, the FDA questioned the assertions Tesla has made about its devices. The agency declined to comment on the matter. Depending on Tesla’s response, the agency could levy fines or take other punitive actions, including ordering the company to remove its products from the market.

The AP contacted several people who had purchased the products, or whose relatives had, who said they later felt duped. None agreed to speak on the record, citing the fear of public embarrassment. Some angry customers have posted complaints about the products on social media.

“Don’t waste your money, I’ve already wasted mine,” said one woman who uploaded a TikTok video about her experiences with a biohealer. During the video, the woman opened the container to reveal the interior of the canister: a solid mass that resembled concrete. “They sold me a can of cement.”

Many of the company’s claims ape the language of science, said Caulfield, the Canadian law professor, including technical sounding words like “quantum” or “biophotons” to add to their credibility.

“They sound high-tech and employ the language of technology and medicine, even borrowing the name of Nikola Tesla,” Caulfield said. “It’s designed to enhance their credibility.”

Tesla’s claims about life force energy are also based, somewhat, on fact. Biophotons are real — a type of light emitted by living tissue that can’t be seen by the human eye. But their role in health is not well understood and use as a medical therapy is not proven, according to Bahman Anvari, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Riverside.

Tesla is now undertaking a clinical study to demonstrate the effectiveness of the cannisters. For now, the company cites a single medical study written by Liu and three other Tesla employees as evidence to back up its claims. That study found that Tesla’s canisters helped a woman who had complained of severe menstrual pain.

Anvari, however, noted that Tesla’s single journal article was not peer-reviewed, was limited to a single patient who was also receiving standard treatments, lacked a control group and has not been replicated.

“It’s completely scientifically implausible,” Caulfield said. “But if you’re desperate, and you’re looking for answers, you can see why you’d be drawn to it.”

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Miracle cures: Online conspiracy theories are creating a new age of unproven medical treatments