Photo: Vaev Tissue
The package appeared one day unbidden on the desk of a TIME writer. Inside was a smooth white box containing a petri dish sealed with gold tape. There was a crumpled tissue in the shell-and inside the tissue were supposedly the germs of a sick person who had sneezed.
Vaev Tissue, the only product of a Los Angeles-based startup, will cost $ 79.99 on the company's website. Its sole purpose is to give the user a cold virus. "We believe that using a tissue that carries a human sneeze is safer than needles or pills," read the note that came with the product and was written by the founder of the company. Wipe your nose with the tainted handkerchief and you will be "sick on your own terms".
However, a few questions remained, such as a runny nose that will not disappear. Why should someone pay for getting sick? And was this product ̵
I spoke to Oliver Niessen, the 34-year-old founder of the company, during a series of telephone calls. "The simple idea is that you now decide to get sick, with the idea that you will not get sick with the same cold … later," says Niessen. For example, you wipe your nose off a few days before vacation with a Vaev cloth and you can catch a cold before you travel, says Niessen. "That kind of freedom to choose that kind of luxury – I mean, we're adjusting everything in our lives, and we've got everything we want, so why not treat illness that way? "
The problem is, viruses do not work, says Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology and environmental science at the University of Arizona, who is studying the spread of disease. "There are many things wrong," he says. "There are more than 200 types of rhinoviruses. Each time, you have to put about 200 handkerchiefs in your nose to get another one. "Exposure to a cold can protect you from this tension. "But one person's vaccination does not protect you from everyone else." That's why we've never had a cold vaccine, he says. "How do you make a vaccine against 200 different viruses?" (Associated: How early should you get the flu shot?)
Chances are that wiping the nose with a dirty handkerchief will give the virus the virus is on to as long as the tissue is refrigerated or treated with a preservative is going to keep the virus alive, says Gerba. The recipient, however, has no way of knowing the specific content of the tissue, whether it is a rhinovirus or even flu. Niessen refuses to discuss screening procedures. According to Niessen, Vaev has a "stall" of 10 sneezes, of which the company recruited some online. He says that the company confirms that a person is really sick and not just allergic. "A sick person sneezes in a lot of our handkerchiefs, and then we pack them in our packaging, and that's how they work," he says. "We'll just send it by mail."
The sale of cherished handkerchiefs is an "incredible danger," Gerba says, because you can not predict how a person will react to a virus. "Say you have an older person, you give it to them – they could die from it," he says. Other people at higher risk of having – and even dying – of rhinovirus infection are children, immunocompromised people, and anyone with a breathing problem they may not know, says Gerba. The instructions contained in Vaev only indicate that it is intended for adults and children over 6 years.
Happy 2019! New year, new flu! pic.twitter.com/oqi1fdcnd3
– VaevTissue (@VaevTissue) January 1, 2019
"There is nothing positive that can come of it, just the things that are detrimental "says Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Medicine in the Department of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University. Federal health authorities agree that the best way to avoid colds is to wash your hands frequently, not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth, and to keep away from the sick (and their tissues, presumably).
Still buy it, says Niessen. Last fall, a crew of happy young women – called "Vaev Squad" – threw the dirty cloth on Venice Beach to Vaev's Instagram. They are popular at music festivals, adds Niessen. Typical customers of Vaev are young parents and people over the age of 20, says Niessen and "critical" of vaccines. "Our clients are people who want to know what vaccines really mean to me and my family, and are there alternatives?" Vaev has sold nearly 1,000 tissues so far, says Niessen. When searching for social platforms, at least one person was found indicating that she had tried the product. Vaev's Instagram account contains a story by Jillian Forster, a fitness trainer in Los Angeles. In the post, Forster wipes his nose with Vaev. A caption says, "Strengthen my immune system with @vaevtissue!" Forster says the company contacted her on Instagram and asked her if she wanted to try it for free, she says. "Nothing really happened," she says. Before recommending it, "I think I'd like to know more about it and maybe talk to someone in the company because I did not really know much about it. I felt that there was a limited amount of information when I looked at their website. "
The company's opposite position in public health is not the only part of Vaev that raises questions. The founder Oliver Niessen does not seem to be present on the internet. He is deliberately absent from all social media and can not be found through a nationwide search for public records – unusual for anyone, let alone the founder of a startup on a media flash. "It was very hard for me to make sure I did not have a footprint online," he says. He would not explain why he wanted it that way. "I can not comment on my identity any further." (He reluctantly confirmed that Oliver Niessen is his real name.) The only detail of his work history he would tell is that he was a video editor for a pharmaceutical marketing firm in Philadelphia he did not name. The phone number he gave me as the best number to reach him even mentions someone in the mailbox: a man named Mikey. Niessen says that's because several members of the company share a phone line.
Niessen also refuses to give details about the tissue company, even the simplest ones. When I asked what his company's registered name was, he replied, "I do not want to say." He also did not want to say in which state the company was founded – a search revealed on the California State Secretary's Business Search website that Vaev Tissue is not registered in this state – or even if it is a US company at all. According to his website, whose domain is registered with a non-traceable entity, Vaev started in Copenhagen. In his Twitter account is also given Copenhagen as a location. (The word Vaev in Danish means tissue). Niessen says that the company has eight employees, but does not name them or offer interviews to their employees, lawyers, or anyone else associated with the company.
The only other person who seems to be openly connected to the company is Grant Eastey, a 28-year-old actor and model in Los Angeles. He says he first met the company when he saw the Vaev squad in Venice Beach. "It was similar to the Red Bull girls," he says. He spoke later and was cast in a photo shoot with Vaev. Eastey appears on the site in a tiny, sweaty tank top with oversized boxing gloves and a scarf stuffed in a nostril.
He shared the photo with his Instagram followers and a journalist who had received a sample published a commentary. "Is this a joke product?" She asked.
"It works! Try it!" Eastey replied.
When she said that there is little information on her website, he responded again. "28.10. Stay tuned! Let me know if your news channels want to arrange an interview. "
Eastey now says he has no idea if the fabric works. "I tried the product while I was there … you said it, pick it up, we'll take a few shots," he says. "I did not feel different."
He says he was just excited when he saw a news journalist interact with him on Instagram. That's why he decided to hype. "Sometimes I just talk online, tell stuff about random people," he says. "If you try to make it, dive into the world of acting and modeling and pursue your dream, take every shot you can get."
You could not buy a Vaev handkerchief today, even if you wanted to. The website has been listed as "sold out" for months. "We had some problems with the supply chain," says Niessen. He does not respond to her. "I do not want to say anything that looks bad for the business, because there really is nothing bad or unlucky for the eventual return of the product on the website and on the market." (Associated: How long can cold and flu germs occur live on surfaces like doorknobs and subway sticks?)
Nevertheless, he points out that the raid is due to a stable of 10 sneezes. "We just check with them if they're sick or not, and of course it's an advantage that they are sick," he says. "It's just enough people that at least one of them is always sick." However, this is not a safe bet and sometimes people just are not sick. "That can stop production," he says. "Let's say we're ready with our towels and we do not have anyone we think is sick or sick … holding more people, as if this was a big job for a startup." Niessen will not say whether or not he will pay for the sneezing. "I'd rather not go into my relationship with these people," he says.
Niessen says he thinks that his company could be a joke "very annoying".
"People think it's a fake," he says. "That's not it."
If Vaev is what it claims, sending viruses by e-mail gives legal questions. According to the United States Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement agency of the United States Postal Service, the dispatch of infectious substances is permitted "if they are intended for medical or veterinary purposes, research or laboratory testing in the public health and this is done properly for sending shocks, pressure changes and other conditions that occur during normal handling during transport. "
" These fabrics do not appear to be intended for any of the purposes listed, "the US Postal Inspection Service said in a statement to ZEIT. (Niessen says that according to his lawyer, "the parcels we ship do not violate the law.")
If (and when) the used fabric is offered for sale, Niessen believes people are plaguing it. "I think products are worth what people want to pay for," he says. "It's a first-class product, and it's nothing you can get from anywhere else."
Niessen admits that theoretically you could simply take a used handkerchief from a sick friend for free. But it will not be nicely packaged, and that seems crucial to getting people to use the product. "We did tests in the focus group, where we brought two people in front of the group and handed them a handkerchief," says Niessen. "This is something to which our testers really reacted negatively."
Niessen expects that he will fill up in a few weeks, as soon as he can get a new load Nieschen on a new fabric set. (And when people actually get sick, avoid traveling with these 9 things.)
This story was originally published on TIME.com by Mandy Oaklander.