When Robin Kintz’s two kittens, Fiona and Henry, contracted a fatal cat disease last year, she began hearing of a black-market drug from China. The use of the drug, known as GS-441524, is based on legitimate research from UC Davis, but the ways to get it seemed much less so. “It was, ‘If you want to save your cat, send me thousands of dollars, and I’ll DHL you some unmarked vials,’” she says. And she did. Kintz transferred the thousands of dollars, got the unmarked vials from China, and then injected the clear liquid into her dying cats every day for months.
The first remarkable thing, given the nature of the transaction, is that Kintz says the vials actually worked. Henry lived for almost another year, and Fiona made a full recovery. She’s still scampering around today, fluffy and alive—a miracle considering that vets had long thought her disease, feline infectious peritonitis, to be incurable and 100 percent fatal. Kintz now runs a 22,000-member Facebook group that helps cat owners using GS-441524. Thousands of cats have reportedly been cured of FIP.
The second remarkable thing is that GS-441524 is almost identical to a much buzzed-about human drug: remdesivir, the antiviral currently our best hope for treating COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Although early data suggest that the drug shortens recovery time at best, Anthony Fauci has touted remdesivir from the White House. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized it for emergency use. And Gilead Sciences, the company that makes remdesivir, is donating 1.5 million doses of the drug amidst the pandemic.
Gilead invented and patented GS-441524, too. Its scientists co-authored the UC Davis studies showing effectiveness against FIP. But the company has refused to license GS-441524 for animal use, out of fear that its similarity to remdesivir could interfere with the human drug’s FDA-approval process—originally for Ebola. When that failed, and a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus later arose, the company began testing it against COVID-19. Remdesivir has a small but clever modification that makes it better at entering cells, but it and GS-441524 work in exactly the same way to inhibit viruses.