Australia’s competition commissioner is suing clothing retailer Lorna Jane over claims that its “anti-virus activewear” protected wearers against Covid-19.

The legal action, which was lodged in Australia’s Federal Court on Monday, relates to claims made by Lorna Jane in July about its “groundbreaking technology LJ Shield”.

Treating leggings, sports bras and other Lorna Jane products with this substance eliminated and stopped the spread of Covid-19, the retailer claimed, according to court documents lodged by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Lorna Jane’s claims were made in an advertising blitz on Instagram, its website and in stores in early to mid-July, said the watchdog, during a deadly second wave of Covid-19. It alleges that Lorna Jane misrepresented the fact that there was a scientific or technological basis to the claims, when no such testing had been carried out.

The ACCC also took aim at Lorna Jane Clarkson, the company’s founding director and chief creative officer. It said she was knowingly concerned in the alleged conduct, including by personally making false or misleading claims in a media release and video.

Most of the claims were removed in mid-July following a public outcry, but until at least November Lorna Jane continued to represent on tags that the garment permanently protected wearers against pathogens.

“Cure for the Spread of Covid-19? Lorna Jane thinks so ,” said the company during its advertising campaign, according to court documents.

“LJ Shield breaks through the membrane shell of any toxic diseases, bacteria or germs that come into contact with it, not only killing that microbe but preventing it from multiplying into any more.”

Lorna Jane, which sells women’s activewear online and in 108 retail stores throughout Australia, has already been fined almost A$40,000 (US$30,000) by the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration in relation to the claims. But the potential penalties, in the event of a conviction, are much tougher, including fines of A$10m or 10 per cent of annual turnover.

Lorna Jane said it was disappointed with the court action and that it would defend the case. “As the proceedings are now before the court, neither the company nor Ms Clarkson will be making any further comment at this stage,” the company said.

Sarah Court, ACCC commissioner, alleged that the statements made by Lorna Jane gave the impression that the claims were based on scientific or technological evidence, which was not the case.

“It is particularly concerning that allegedly misleading claims that Lorna Jane’s LJ Shield Activewear could eliminate the spread of Covid-19 were made at a time when there was fear about a second wave emerging in Australia, especially in Victoria,” said Ms Court.

The ACCC has set up a Covid-19 task force that is investigating companies taking advantage of the crisis by allegedly engaging in illegal conduct. The watchdog said last month that coronavirus-related consumer reports made up the majority of the 109,446 complaints received in the first 10 months of 2020.