Going Viral: How coronavirus is affecting the dietary supplement industry

March 10, 2020

Wilson Lau remembers the moment when the novel coronavirus—a.k.a. COVID-19—went from being an alarming news story to being a matter of professional concern.

“When the Chinese announced that they were extending the Chinese New Year Holiday in early February,” recalls the vice president of Nuherbs (San Leandro, CA), “we said, ‘Uh-oh. Here we go. This is serious.’”

And Lau’s suspicions were right: It is. But COVID-19 is serious not just for the overriding reason of its threat to public health; it’s serious because importers of Chinese herbs and herbal supplements like Lau—to say nothing of the broader dietary supplement industry, the global economy, and the stock market as a whole—are feeling the effects of the quarantines, work stoppages, and pinched supply lines that the virus has precipitated.

For the dietary supplement and other supply chains, that’s what happens when the linchpin—China—is also the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic. Worse still, as that disease spreads—possibly becoming a pandemic—industry operators everywhere will experience the same “aha” moment that Lau did. And they’d best be prepared.


Spread the News

The only immutable aspect of the COVID-19 story is that it remains a highly mutable story. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and others have been updating their guidance protocols daily as cases emerge and experts gain better purchase on just how formidable this disease is.

According to The New York Times, as of February 28, China had reported 79,250 confirmed cases resulting in 2,834 deaths—the highest national tally on both counts1. Hubei province, site of the virus’s first detection, remains under government-ordered shutdown of all nonessential businesses, including manufacturing plants, at least through March 102. That said, Lau notes, “In the rest of China, which has a lower density of cases, controls are less extreme.”

And though the virus—officially named SARS-CoV-2—would have wreaked enough havoc had it remained in China, CDC reports on February 28 that the virus has now appeared in 57 international locations3, including South Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran, and the United States, where at least two of the 63 confirmed illnesses involve patients with no known risk factors, such as travel to China or exposure to an infected person4.

As far as WHO is concerned, the organization is keen to keep the virus from spreading to countries with weaker healthcare infrastructures, Lau notes, and has already identified 13 counties in Africa with links to China that will need help preparing for any viral arrival. Nevertheless, he says, “Even developed nations are likely to see their healthcare systems strained if this continues to spread.”


Cause for Concern

Best guesses are that that spread began when COVID-19, a common animal-hosted coronavirus, jumped species to humans late last year—possibly via inter-species contact in a large seafood and live-animal market in Hubei3.

Nevertheless, Lau points to WHO reporting that 80% of those who have contracted the illness develop only mild cases, with the remaining 20% experiencing severe symptoms. And though “it’s too soon to calculate mortality with certainty,” he adds, estimates put it at around 2%.

Fortunately for those concerned about transmission via dietary ingredients imported from affected areas, the virus doesn’t survive on surfaces, and Lau maintains that brands have no cause for concern about Chinese ingredients’ safety so long as they trust their supplier’s quality programs.

Further, an FDA statement dated February 14 states that the agency continues to review Chinese imports using its routine process and has not determined the need for additional measures to protect public health. The agency is prepared to resort to increased import screening if it deems fit, but continues to emphasize that no evidence supports the virus’s transmission via imported goods, including food and drugs for humans and pets.


  1. The New York Times website. “Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Spread of the Outbreak.” Retrieved February 28, 2020. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/coronavirus-maps.html
  2. Xinhuanet.com. Hubei Provincial New Coronavirus Infectious Pneumonia Prevention and Control Headquarters. Retrieved February 28, 2020.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary.” Updated March 9, 2020. Accessed at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html
  4. The New York Times website. “Coronavirus Live Updates: Second Unexplained Case Found in California, This Time in Santa Clara County.” Retrieved February 28, 2020.
  5. FDA Statement. “FDA’s Actions in Response to 2019 Novel Coronavirus at Home and Abroad.” Published February 14, 2020. Accessed at: https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fdas-actions-response-2019-novel-coronavirus-home-and-abroad?utm_campaign=021420_Statement_FDA%E2%80%99s%20Actions%20in%20Response%20to%202019%20Novel%20Coronavirus%20%28COVID-19%29&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua