Amazon said on Thursday that it blocked more than a million items from sale on its marketplace in recent weeks that made false claims about defending against the novel coronavirus, as schemers across the globe looked to make a quick buck amid a global health threat. But what’s left when searching “coronavirus” or “Covid-19” on the e-commerce site is a grab bag of rushed-to-publish pandemic books and protection gear, a mix of products that could be disorienting to the average shopper.
As the global count of confirmed deaths from Covid-19 approaches 3,000, small-time authors and all kinds of businesses are flooding the Everything Store’s digital shelves with inventory. Meanwhile, Amazon is working to eliminate scams and block merchants from engaging in price-gouging, as uncertainty mounts about where else the virus will spread in the world and what impact it will have.
“Amazon has always required sellers provide accurate information on product detail pages and we remove those that violate our policies,” a spokesperson said in a statement sent to Recode.
Search “coronavirus” or “Covid-19” on Amazon today and the site first displays a header that links to a page directing visitors to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website with more information about the virus. Below that, Amazon serves up books from small-time authors with titles like The Wuhan Coronavirus Survival Manual and the Fuck Coronavirus Swear Coloring Book, with a few listings for things like disinfectant wipes, masks, and medical exam gloves sprinkled in.
Concern over the virus was evident by just glancing at Amazon’s bestselling products on Friday afternoon. The bestselling product in Amazon’s home and kitchen category in the US was a pack of “anti-dust” disposable masks with an awful 2.3 star rating, versus a mattress protector on the same day a year ago, according to data pulled by the e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse. The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear face masks, unless instructed by a doctor. But those infected by Covid-19 and showing systems, as well as health care workers treating those patients, are urged to wear masks.
In Amazon’s health and household category, top items included a three-pack of “anti-dust” cotton face masks, Clorox and Lysol wipes, and elderberry gummies for “immune support,” versus fabric softener sheets and batteries on the same day in 2019. And in the grocery category, bottled water and instant ramen topped the charts, compared to Nespresso capsules and protein power last year.
Amazon also said on Thursday that it had removed tens of thousands of listings attempting to charge sky-high prices for products in demand as the virus spreads. This is the type of price-gouging that Amazon typically never allows, and the company is on high alert for the behavior during situations like natural disasters and disease outbreaks.
“There is no place for price gouging on Amazon,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis and, in line with our long-standing policy, have recently blocked or removed tens of thousands of offers. We continue to actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies.”
The company has also been placing larger-than-normal orders from some brands and manufacturers to guard against a bigger slowdown in China’s manufacturing sector. The CDC says “there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures“ and that there is currently “no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods.”
In the days and weeks ahead, Amazon and other e-commerce sites in the US could become indispensable if the health threat worsens in geographies not yet significantly impacted by the virus. But for now, online shoppers may also need to wade through garbage e-books and questionable-quality items to get there.