Desperate Cat Owners Are Buying Illegal Cat Drugs On Facebook’s Black Market
Inside a “Dallas Buyers Club” for cat medicine.A single glance at the foster kitten told veterinarian Jessica Thompson all she needed to know. Harper’s once-velvety gray coat was greasy and dull. She was still small — just five pounds — but her abdomen swelled like she had a baseball in her stomach. In the clinic, Thompson used a syringe to remove cloudy, yellowish fluid from the five-month-old cat. She had seen these symptoms two years before, in two other foster kittens. The disease, known as feline infectious peritonitis, is caused by a mutant form of a common feline virus. It most frequently strikes cats at the beginning and end of their lives, when their immune system is the weakest. Historically, FIP has been 100% fatal.The family that had begun the process of adopting Harper had already fallen in love with the gray fluffball, and Harper’s new mom broke down at the news.“At that point, I didn’t care,” said Thompson. “I just wanted to save Harper because I wasn’t going to have another FIP kitten die if I could save its life.”Thompson knew there was another option, but it was a risky one. Several months before, another family told her of a new drug called GS-441524 that could cure cats of FIP. They had learned about it via a 22,000-member Facebook group called FIP Warriors. Digging into the research, Thompson found an early 2019 pilot study led by veterinarian Niels Pedersen at the University of California, Davis showing that an 84-day course of GS-441524 cured 25 out of 31 cats. The good news had only one catch: The drug was only available on the black market.“It’s like the Dallas Buyers Club, when patients couldn’t get the AIDS meds they needed in this country legally.”Gilead Sciences, the pharmaceutical company that developed the drug, hadn’t taken the final step to get it approved for veterinary use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because it was afraid any adverse events in cats would torpedo the company’s ability to get GS-441524 approved for human use, according to Pedersen. The drug was originally developed for people and is the basis for the antiviral drug remdesivir, which has been used to treat Covid-19; from a physiological standpoint, the two drugs are identical. Manufacturers in China reverse-engineered GS-441524 using a chemical structure that Pedersen had published in studies and shared at conferences. Anyone could order the illegally reproduced drug with the click of a mouse — provided they knew what to search for. Facebook groups like FIP Warriors helped connect the owners of sick cats with the life-saving medication, regardless of its legal status.“It’s like the Dallas Buyers Club, when patients couldn’t get the AIDS meds they needed in this country legally. That’s kind of what I like to think that we’re doing for cats,” said Robin Kintz, one of the founders of FIP Warriors.Because the entire enterprise was unregulated, Thompson had no guarantee that anything she ordered was actually GS-441524 and not something else that could harm a cat. She would have to enter the burgeoning new world of illegal trade facilitated by social media.“These are really massive criminal enterprises,” said anthropologist Katie Paul, who co-founded the Alliance to Counter Crime Online. “Social media has created a way for the layperson who may have come into something they need to sell but don’t necessarily have the network to connect with major transnational criminals. It’s really democratized black market trade across a number of illicit markets.”Thompson faced a stark decision. Either she skirted the law or she watched Harper die. In the end, the choice was clear: She added more than a thousand dollars’ worth of GS-441524 to her online shopping cart and crossed her fingers.FIP is caused by a distant cousin of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Veterinarians first recognized FIP in 1963, and in 1981, Pedersen linked it to a common feline coronavirus that infected the gastrointestinal system of virtually all cats at least once during their lives. Re-infection is common because cats don’t produce long-lasting immunity to the virus. But if the causative coronavirus was common, FIP was not, Pedersen found. Something else had to be at play.A cat lover who grew up on a southern California farm, Pedersen began studying cat diseases as a vet student at UC Davis and was appalled at how little was known about them. It took more than two decades of work before he finally uncovered the true link between the coronavirus and FIP. His research involved experiments on shelter cats, which precipitated hate mail and death threats from animal rights activists and cat lovers. But Pedersen believed that these experiments, which sacrificed the lives of 100 or so cats, would ultimately result in an FIP cure that would save the lives of millions.He persevered, infecting cats with the FIP-causing coronavirus and injecting others with virus-laden fluid from cats with FIP. Only a tiny percentage of those given the coronavirus developed FIP, but all of those injected with the fluid died.Normally, FIP isn’t contagious: Even in shelters and multi-cat households, having one cat with FIP didn’t mean that others would succumb. Pedersen realized that the virus may have gained its ability to cause FIP by mutating. But when he floated the idea to other veterinarians, they scoffed.“They said ‘Niels, it’s crazy. I don’t want you talking about this anymore,” Pedersen said.But the suffering of cats with FIP devastated Pedersen. So he said nothing and went back to the lab. Soon, he accumulated enough evidence to convince the naysayers that his mutation hypothesis explained how a garden-variety coronavirus could become a kitty killer. Pedersen published his findings in 1998 in the journal Virology.He found that the virus linked to FIP normally replicates in a cat’s gastrointestinal system, and cats with a robust immune system can fight off the virus. On rare occasions, however, a mutation arises that lets the virus infect macrophages, immune cells that kill off invading pathogens. If this happens, FIP can develop. The disease can cause fluid to build up in the cat’s abdomen, as well as neurological problems and blindness, before the cat ultimately succumbs to disease.“We still don’t really know why this happens or what the mechanism is behind it. Viruses don’t really want to kill their hosts, they really want to just continue replicating. If your host dies, the virus dies,” said Nicole Andre, a virology PhD student at Cornell University who studies coronaviruses.Pedersen found that cats didn’t produce long-lasting immunity to the coronavirus, so he quickly decided against working on a vaccine. In the mid-1990s, his eyes were opened to the potentials of pharmaceutical treatment after he spent a year working on HIV medications at Gilead Sciences.In 2012, Pedersen approached his former co-workers at Gilead and asked whether he could test some of their rejected drugs to see if they might work against FIP. They humored him and sent him a bunch of samples. The Material Transfer Agreement signed by both Gilead and Pedersen contained a clause that said Gilead would develop any compound Pedersen found to be effective against FIP.“They don’t want to risk the big bucks for some little sidebar.”Meanwhile, scientists at Kansas State University had also developed an antiviral compound of their own, which they called GC376. Instead of interfering with the ability of the coronavirus to copy its genetic material like GS-441524, GC376 inhibited the enzyme that let the virus take its final infectious form. The Kansas State scientists were more than happy to let Pedersen test the drugs in cats.Peter Cohen, founder of the FIP awareness organization Zen by Cat, allowed his cats Miss Bean and Smokey to become some of the first naturally infected cats to be treated with GC376. That only seven out of the 20 cats that Pedersen treated with the drug survived, including Smokey, would have been a disappointing result in any other disease. For FIP, the results were nothing short of a miracle.Pedersen thought cats deserved better than a 30% chance, so he began testing Gilead’s drugs. Tests in cells revealed two clear winners: GS-441524 and its kissing cousin, GS-5734. The former was simpler to synthesize, so Pedersen focused his efforts on it, reasoning that it would ultimately be cheaper for pet owners. He used GS-441524 to treat 10 shelter cats that he experimentally infected with FIP. All 10 recovered. Then, he treated cats who had naturally acquired the infection, and 25 out of 31 cats recovered. Pedersen published the results in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery and told Gilead the good news. But instead of jumping for joy, the company shrugged. “They didn’t see the market in the cat side. They didn’t appreciate how serious this disease was to cats and cat owners,” Pedersen said. “They don’t want to risk the big bucks for some little sidebar.”Gilead did not respond to requests for an interview.Pedersen told the company that if they didn’t move the drug forward through approved channels, someone else would do so without their permission. He mentioned the rows of Chinese veterinarians that attended his talks where he shared information about GS-441524 and took photos of his slides. The compound would be simple for the Chinese chemical manufacturing industry to copy. Pedersen says that Gilead didn’t seem to appreciate the size and strength of the veterinary market.But Gilead, Pedersen later learned, also had other concerns. GS-5734, only a few atoms different from GS-441524, had shown promise against human viruses, including Ebola. With the large West African outbreak that began in late 2014, Gilead began investigating GS-5734, which they had renamed as remdesivir, as an Ebola treatment. If cats taking GS-441524 showed serious side effects, Gilead said, it might interfere with their ability to get remdesivir approved for human use.Remdesivir ultimately flopped in clinical trials for Ebola, but Gilead kept it in reserve and began searching for other viruses that it might treat. Not long after Gilead began its search, another coronavirus captured the world’s attention in the form of Covid-19.Six purring felines awaken Zelda Fitzgerald every morning at precisely 5:30 a.m. After she staggers downstairs in her fuzzy slippers and dutifully fills six bowls with scoops of Friskies, she brews a cup of coffee and logs onto Facebook. In pre-quarantine days, Fitzgerald — an online handle, not a real name — would normally spend an hour replying to the messages she received overnight as an FIP Warriors Admin before heading into her job as a high school English teacher. Now, she spends much of her day on Messenger, helping cat owners with everything from understanding lab results to teaching them how to inject GS-441524 into their sick cats, as well as sourcing vials of the medication.Fitzgerald keeps her involvement with FIP Warriors hush-hush, given her job as a teacher. She created an anonymous Facebook profile to protect her privacy and signs messages at her anonymous email account as “Voldemort” if she doesn’t know the sender. Although she’s never studied science, even Pedersen recognizes her expertise on FIP. Despite the personal and professional risks, Fitzgerald remains committed to FIP Warriors because of how GS-441524 saved her rescue cat Barack Obameow. When Barry became sick in early 2018, not long after she adopted him and his littermate, who she named Michelle, Fitzgerald was devastated.“The [next] morning I woke up and I looked at him and I said, I’m going to save you. I don’t know how I’m going to save you. But I’m going to save you,” she said.After spending all night trawling the internet and teaching herself everything about FIP, she learned about some of the trials Pedersen was running at UC Davis. Two days later, she and Barry were on a plane to Sacramento. Pedersen had just started testing GS-441524 for cats with neurological FIP symptoms, and Barry seemed like the perfect candidate. Just 72 hours after his treatment began, Barry began eating better and his neurological symptoms started their slow but steady retreat. For the next 14 weeks, Barry and Fitzgerald endured a grueling medication schedule of painful daily injections.“I can’t recommend people get them. They’re illegal.”“Have I poked myself with a needle? Yes. Have I had to poke him several times with a needle? Yes. Um, has he run across the room with a needle in his back? Yes. Have I missed and gotten it on his fur and had to wipe him off? Yes, all of those things,” Fitzgerald said. But Barry was alive, the first cat cured of neurological FIP, and Fitzgerald wanted every cat owner to have that same possibility.During Barry’s treatment, Fitzgerald routinely logged onto a Facebook group called FIP Fighters. As Barry improved, she watched all the other group members say goodbye to their best friends. Group founder Susan Gingrich, sister of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, lost her cat, Bria, to FIP in 2005. Gingrich favors the use of immune stimulants that might help treat FIP, but the results were nothing like what Fitzgerald was seeing with Barry.Fitzgerald ultimately stopped logging onto what she called the “thoughts and prayers” group. In early 2019, she saw the new FIP Warriors Facebook group that was devoted to people treating their cats with GS-441524, the same molecule that had cured Barry. Eager to have a resource for parents of sick cats, Fitzgerald messaged the admins and asked where they were getting the drug. Cohen, a founder and co-admin, initially hesitated to disclose. Fitzgerald persisted, and Cohen eventually admitted they obtained the drug illegally from China. In Gingrich’s FIP Fighters group, admins had banned the discussion of Chinese GS-441524.“I can’t recommend people get them. They’re illegal,” Gingrich said. “The Chinese stole the intellectual property of Gilead.”Both Fitzgerald and Cohen disagree with calling GS-441524 a black-market drug. To Fitzgerald, “black-market” implies transactions that cause harm. Thompson, who used GS-441524 from China, agrees. She said she would have preferred to treat Harper with a known, regulated entity, but she felt she had no other choice. Even Pedersen acknowledges the bind pet parents find themselves in and has created a guide for owners who decide to go that route.“You’re spending all of this money to save just one cat, when so many could be saved with that same money. I bet you won’t print that.”Not everyone is so sanguine. Although Gingrich is the most outspoken critic of GS-441524 from China, others have also raised concerns. Leslie Lyons, a feline geneticist at Kansas State, says that the desperation of sick cat owners doesn’t change the fact that the overseas drug manufacturers are stealing and cheating.“That’s not how it’s supposed to be done,” Lyons said. She also questions the wisdom of cat rescues forking over so much money to save a single cat when there are so many kittens in need of food, shelter, and basic veterinary care.“You’re spending all of this money to save just one cat, when so many could be saved with that same money.” Lyons paused. “I bet you won’t print that.”Paul of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online says that the proliferation of underground GS-441524 sellers shows just how easy it is to buy and sell illegal items on Facebook and other social media platforms. Her specialty is trade in looted antiques from the Middle East, and her years tracking these transactions has shown her that sellers rely on the fact that the corporations running these platforms show no inclination to interfere with this trafficking. They even profit from it via targeted advertisements and taking a share of the sales that occur on Facebook Marketplace, Paul says.“Even though the company has community standards against the sale of drugs, counterfeit drugs, supplements, things like that, they don’t proactively moderate the groups. They wait for the users to report something, and then they go and make a determination on what’s reported,” Paul said. “There’s really no regulation on these social media platforms that forces them to be accountable for facilitating this kind of trade, which is a big problem.”Robin Kintz, the co-founder of FIP Warriors, says that individual group members are not supposed to be selling their medication to other users. Instead, FIP Warriors helps to connect users with GS-441524 and specifically warns them that they are treating their cats at their own risk. Bad batches of GS-441524 continue to be a problem, although Kintz said she is surprised at how often the medication is effective and how rarely members are ripped off. The group maintains a list of companies with a proven track record, including Mutian, perhaps the most well-known of GS-441524 sellers. Mutian openly markets the drug as a dietary supplement that helps cats with FIP by “boosting their immune system and overall well-being.” Its website never mentions GS-441524 by name, but it’s an open secret that it’s selling the antiviral. Because Mutian is a legitimate pharmaceutical company in China, and their product came recommended, Thompson opted to use Mutian for Harper’s therapy.Almost overnight, the lethargic kitty began to perk up and show interest in food and toys. After a week, Harper seemed almost normal. Because the drug is dosed by weight, Thompson had to increase the amount of medication she used as Harper’s health improved. In total, treatment cost around $5,000, all of which was covered via a GoFundMe account.She is grateful for the availability of GS-441524, whatever its source, but says the best solution would be for Gilead to produce the drug itself.“But right now, that’s a moot point. The cat is already out of the bag,” she said.