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The $80 Used Tissue That Might Be a Sick Joke

Would you pay good money to get sick on your own terms? A California start-up blurs the line between extreme wellness culture and elaborate prank

The box espouses a white marble design, adorned with a clean geometric logo in gold. Inside is a Petri dish, a hint at the biological origin of its content: a crumpled paper tissue. Except it’s a used one, and someone who was sick blew their nose into it. That’ll be $80, please.

The Californian start-up is called Vaev (apparently Danish for “tissue”). It wants you to purposefully contaminate yourself with the common cold when it’s convenient for you, to get it out of the way for the rest of the season, and it serves as a reminder of Poe’s law. A well-known adage in online spaces, Poe’s law tells us that it’s impossible to parody an extreme view without someone thinking they’re being serious. I have seen a number of ludicrous pseudosciences, but I suspect that Vaev is an elaborate prank.

Does the company even exist?

TIME Magazine reporter Mandy Oaklander spoke to the founder of Vaev, Oliver Niessen, and uncovered a series of oddities. Niessen is untraceable and has no presence on the Internet (“It’s been very hard for me to ensure that there is no footprint for me available online,” he tells her, refusing to explain himself further); the voicemail message on his phone is by a guy named Mikey (they share his phone at the office, you see, even though Niessen is the founder); he will not reveal the names of his 8 employees nor the incorporated name of the company, and the reporter could not find his business registration with the government of California. Also, the online magazine Inverse couldn’t find a single person who had bought the product, despite Niessen claiming sales of 1,000 tissues.

Vaev, we are told, has 10 “go-to sneezers” to contaminate its tissues, as “retaining more people than that is kind of a tall order for a startup.” Niessen declined to reveal how these sneezers were screened (do they have a cold? the flu?). And to explain the fact that the product has been marked as “sold out” for months, Niessen has alluded to an infection-free sneezing contingent which can “halt production”, leaving all these germ-free tissues uncontaminated and with nowhere to go. Fingers crossed one of his go-to sneezers gets a runny nose soon!

Combined with its feeble social media presence (only 13 tweets on the company account) and the fact that reporters have been receiving the product without asking for it, Vaev looks like a prank, possibly aimed at the media, to see if they will bite and be uncritical.

But let’s say Vaev is legit, and you are first in line to buy the product when the sneezers get a-sneezin’ again. Will rubbing a used tissue on your nose get you sick and protect you for the rest of the year?

The (lack of) science behind Vaev

The common cold and the flu are two very different infections. A cold is the milder of the two and is caused by over 200 different viruses, which is why a vaccine against the infection does not yet exist. The flu is caused by the influenza virus, of which there are types and subtypes (like H1N1) which rise and fall in prominence from year to year, and its symptoms tend to be worse: fever, muscle aches, fatigue. In a single year, it is estimated that the flu causes 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada.

It is unclear if the snot allegedly found in Vaev tissues contains one of the 200 cold viruses or a subtype of influenza. If the former, that still leaves the other 199 viruses out there ready to make you sick. If the latter, this could theoretically be more dangerous than receiving a flu shot. I say “theoretically” because there is no guarantee that wiping a sick person’s nasal mucus against your nostrils would actually make you sick. Even kissing someone with a cold is no guarantee of cootie transmission.

That anti-science fling

Beyond the lack of science at play, I find myself troubled by the company’s flirtation with antivaccination. On December 13th, 2018, the Vaev Twitter account retweeted a fear-mongering article by Mike Adam’s Natural News website about the flu vaccine containing “25,000 times more mercury than is legally allowed in drinking water.” When Niessen was interviewed by TIME, he stated that some of his typical customers are people “critical” of vaccines, individuals who “want to educate themselves” on vaccines and who are asking, “are there alternatives?”

The product apparently ships with a card that spells out the company’s philosophy: “We believe using a tissue that carries a human sneeze is safer than needles or pills.” This is straight from the antivaccination playbook. Their so-called belief simply does not compare to the mountains of scientific evidence gathered on the safety of vaccines. But is this anti-science sentiment legit… or part of the hoax itself? We just don’t know.

If you do want to reduce your chances of getting sick this winter, get your flu shot and avoid touching your food, mouth, nose, and eyes before you’ve had a chance to thoroughly wash or disinfect your hands.

As for Vaev, its credibility as a real company is paper-thin. Though the antivaccination angle gives me pause, it’s hard not to think of their Goop-like product as a tissue of lies.

Take-home message:
- A California company apparently sells tissues that sick people have sneezed into so that its customers can get the cold or flu on their own schedule
- The company may not even exist and this could be an elaborate hoax
- These tissues will not protect you from the cold or flu


@CrackedScience

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