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The crazy story of Purell and the coronavirus

The drag of the coronavirus on the global economy is massive. While the real tragedy is lives lost, the economic effect is a hugely significant secondary consideration. Businesses around the world are feeling serious pain. A recession might be in the offing.

And yet some companies are benefiting from the crisis. Not because they necessarily sought to but because they happen to have the right product or service. Zoom Video which provides conferencing that obviates the need for in-person meetings, is one. Clorox, which of course produces bleach, 409 and other cleaners, has seen its stock rise 13% year-to-date (while the market is down over 9%), is another.

And then there’s Purell, maker of the famous hand sanitizer—which must be selling like crazy, right? That’s probably the case as it’s sold out all over the place, yet we don’t really know because Purell is owned by a private company, GOJO Industries. 

So what’s up with Purell and GOJO? We did some digging around and found out. 

First, while the Akron, Ohio-based company says it’s ramping up production, it declined to tell us by how much, or how much Purell it sold last year. In fact GOJO wouldn’t answer any of our questions and instead sent us a Q and A prepared for media that it said we could attribute to GOJO spokesperson Samantha Williams. It reads: “...orders of the company’s products have increased very significantly. We stepped up production in January and are continuing to bring additional capacity online to meet this heightened demand should it continue...We have added shifts and have team members working overtime.” 

I bet they are.

The communiqué also notes that GOJO employs about 2,500 people and manufactures Purell products at facilities in Wooster and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and France. (You have to wonder if these employees would be exempt from a work-from-home order.)

Bottles of Purell hand sanitizer sit on display. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Next question, how effective is Purell against the coronavirus?

The company states that “Purell...kills 99.99% of most common germs that can make you sick.” Sounds impressive, but note the phrase, “most common germs.” Does that include COVID-19? No one really knows.

In fact, on January 17, just as the coronavirus was becoming a global news story, the FDA sent Purell a letter warning the company about statements in its FAQ sections of websites which suggested “that PURELL® Healthcare Advanced Hand Sanitizers are intended for reducing or preventing disease from the Ebola virus, norovirus, and influenza.” The FDA noted it had no evidence that Purell is effective against those diseases.

The FDA stated: “...we are not aware of evidence demonstrating that the PURELL® Healthcare Advanced Hand Sanitizer products as formulated and labeled are generally recognized by qualified experts as safe and effective for use under the conditions suggested, recommended, or prescribed in their labeling.”

Williams told FOX Business at the time the company immediately took action after receiving the letter and "have begun updating relevant website and other digital content as directed by the FDA."

So does Purell do anything to prevent COVID-19? The active ingredient of Purell is really just 70% ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Experts generally agree that a solution containing in excess of 60% alcohol can be effective in some instances, like for wiping down a tray table on an airplane, and maybe as a hand sanitizer. 

Actually, that distinction—surfaces versus hands—falls under the auspices of the EPA, in terms of the former, and the FDA for the latter, as the GOJO Q and A reflects. Check this out: “...under the EPA’s Emerging Pathogen guidance, our PURELL® Surface Spray can be used to kill COVID-19 on hard, non-porous surfaces when used in accordance with the directions and a 1-minute contact time.” But it goes on to say, “The FDA, which regulates hand sanitizer, and the EPA, which regulates surface disinfectants, have different rules. The EPA permits manufacturers to answer questions about efficacy against viruses.”

Tanya Crum, an assistant professor of biology at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois says that soap and water is always best, but that “if you’re somewhere where soap and water is not available, having hand sanitizer is great. I wouldn’t use it first, I would use it just in case or second.” Crum also says that “There’s varying effectiveness in terms of hand sanitizer killing viruses,” but that’s because COVID-19 is a virus with a capsid protein or what’s called a coat, it may be easier to kill with a hand sanitizer. Potentially good news there for Purell.

Purell’s humble beginnings

GOJO has an all-American backstory. The company was founded in 1946 by Goldie and Jerry Lippman (and is still controlled and run in part by family members). Goldie and Jerry worked in tire and aircraft factories in Ohio during World War II. They found they had a hard time washing tar and other greasy stuff off their hands after work, and so the couple worked with a chemist at Kent State to develop a hand cleaner. (The first product was “GoGo, Goldie's nickname, but another company had already used the name, so the founders came up with GOJO, with the "G" standing for Goldie and the "J" standing for Jerry,” according to company history.) 

Later Jerry came up with the first-ever portion-control dispenser, for which he was granted a patent in 1952. The company proudly reports: “Every soap dispenser on the wall today, anywhere in the world, is a descendant of that first dispenser Jerry invented!” GOJO didn’t create Purell until 1988, but it has become the company's flagship product. Pfizer distributed Purell for a time in the 2000s, a business that was bought by Johnson & Johnson, but GOJO reacquired Purell from J&J in 2010. Smart move. Along the way somebody put Purell dispensers in nearly every elevator bank in nearly every office building in America.

Purell hand sanitizer dispenser at the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 05, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

People certainly are crazy for Purell now. Stores are sold out. You can’t buy it online—well you can but for ridiculous prices. This week, U.S. Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) sent a letter to Amazon demanding it take action to stop third-party sellers from price gouging Purell. Reuters reports that “a box of small Purell bottles that usually sells for $10 was listed online for $400, he said. One third-party seller listed a bottle for $600 on Wednesday afternoon. However, the Amazon brand of hand sanitizer was listed for $8.25 for a large bottle.”

GOJO disavows the gouging, saying (twice!) in its Q and A: “...we feel strongly that there is no place for price-gouging, especially during times of elevated public health concern.” Reuters reports that “Amazon called the price-gougers ‘bad actors.’ “There is no place for price gouging on Amazon,” a spokesman said in a statement. “We continue to actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies.”

For most of us the coronavirus could turn out to be a nightmare. For Purell—not that the company wants it and not that its product is any sort of panacea—COVID-19 is already a dream come true.

 This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on March 8, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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