Coronavirus: Black market treatment for cats with infectious peritonitis is illegal but saves thousands of lives

"I didn't even know there was a FIP, and 24 hours later I was already holding the drugs in my hands," said one of the cat owners.

Authors: Phillip Palmer and Lisa Bartley.
Thursday 18 June 2020; original article on

Thousands of cat owners are resorting to black market medicine to cure their beloved pets from the FIP.

Cats face their own pandemic: a coronavirus strain that is estimated to kill tens of thousands of cats worldwide each year.

Feline infectious coronavirus, also known as FIPV, is not a novel virus and is a different strain from the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. So far, it has been a death sentence for cats that develop the most severe forms of infection.

Most cats encounter feline coronavirus at some point in their lives, but show almost no signs of disease. However, in some cats, the virus mutates - and causes fatal FIP.

"I didn't even know about FIP until now, and 24 hours later I was already holding the drugs in my hands," Amy Shafer told Eyewitness News.

Her 13-year-old cat, Mr. Charlie Bear, was on the verge of death at the end of March this year, in the grip of the FIP.

"Vomiting, lethargy, decreased appetite and fever," says Amy. "He stopped playing with toys, he didn't eat as much as before."

Veterinarian Amy said there was no hope and that "she could bring him to bed in a day or two."

She desperately wanted to save the cat, which she says helped her in a difficult divorce. Amy and her friend Christophe Liglet got a tip on the Facebook group FIP Warriors.

"So they're like a secret group, someone has to tell you about them," Amy says.

Later that night, Amy and Christophe went to Torrance to meet a couple they had contacted through the FIP Warriors who had several vials of FIP medicine. Amy handed over $ 441 in cash for an illegal, presumably life-saving drug.

"It felt like a drug deal," Christophe recalls with a laugh. "I thought I'd call the cops in five minutes if he didn't come out."

Amy says the results were almost instantaneous. The fever subsided, he started to gain weight and now he plays with toys and climbs on his cat tree. Charlie Bear is about halfway through the 84-day treatment protocol, which Amy estimates will cost eight to ten thousand dollars.

"I'm sure my family thinks I'm crazy, but they would do the same," Amy says. "Charlie Bear is the best, he's like a little man.


Dr. Niels Pedersen, Professor Emeritus at UC Davis, has dedicated his 50-year career to studying FIP and seeking treatment.

"One percent of all cats die at FIP," says Dr. Pedersen for Eyewitness News. "It's a cat pandemic."

Pedersen and his team at UC Davis found the drug in a substance known as GS-441524, or GS for short. It blocks the virus's ability to replicate.

"We experimented with 31 cats and we were able to cure 25 of them," says Pedersen.

"It's amazing," says Dr. Brian Murphy, who has since taken over the feline coronavirus program at UC Davis. "It's a miracle for me because we found this medicine, like a needle in a haystack."

But there is a problem. GS-441524 is almost identical to Remdesivir, which is currently much talked about as a drug for COVID-19, and which is manufactured by Gilead, California. Gilead initially hoped that Remdesivir would work to treat people with Ebola.

Gilead invented and owned patents for GS-441524 and GS-5734 (Remdesivir), and his researchers are co-authors of the UC Davis studies, which demonstrate the efficacy of the drug in the treatment of FIP. So far, however, Gilead has refused to license GS-441524 for the treatment of cats.

Gilead did not respond to repeated requests for comments on the team, but last year told the Veterinary Information Network that the company was suspending the licensing of GS-441524 to other parties for commercial development until Remdesivir had FDA approval.

"It's very frustrating because we've been confronted with having this huge discovery, a great discovery," says Pedersen. "We had a drug that could safely and effectively cure most cats suffering from FIP. It was something I had dreamed of for 50 years. ”

UC Davis is currently testing a similar drug for FIP - GC376. Another California company, Anivive, has licensed this drug. Company Anivive seeks FDA approval use this drug in cats and hopes to begin clinical trials at UC Davis this year.

Murphy of UC Davis claims that his team receives e-mails every week from cat owners who are desperately trying to get their cats into clinical trials.

"We are understanding and empathetic about their predicament," says Murphy. "But by the time we get to the tests, their cat will be dead."

Without legal access to the drug, thousands of cat owners have turned to the black market. Medicines containing GS-441524 are manufactured by various companies in China.

"The need is so intense and so great that people will find a way to get medication," says Pedersen. "I warned Gilead of that."


On the FIP Warriors Facebook page, cat owners share before and after photos, advice and support on how to get and use the medicine. Since its inception, the group has grown to more than 24,000 members.

The FDA informs Eyewitness News that any unauthorized drug is considered illegal, but the FDA is unlikely to target cat owners.

"In general, the FDA usually focuses its law enforcement activities on the manufacturer and / or seller of an unapproved product, not the end user," the FDA spokesman said.

"Whenever you use unapproved drugs, you need to watch out for the buyer," says Pedersen, who notes that 100% treatment is not guaranteed and some cats relapse after treatment.

Saving the lives of loved ones with illegal drugs puts veterinarians who want to help in a legal and ethical trap.

"I don't buy the product, I can't prescribe it," said an anonymous LA veterinarian who agreed to an anonymous interview with Eyewitness News. "It's a black market."

The veterinarian estimates that so far she has treated 18 cats with this drug and all but two have survived.

"They are radiant, happy, with no signs of illness," he says. “They are happy at home with their owners or their rescuers. And that was amazing to me because I've never seen it before. Previously, the FIP was always a death sentence. "

She is aware that the administration of the medicine could potentially jeopardize her veterinary license.

"It's a risk," he says. "And if these pets didn't succeed and their lives didn't improve, or their quality and length of life didn't improve, I wouldn't do it."

Koi is a one-year-old rescued cat that came with the FIP in mid-April. Her owner, a musician with the stage name "Tillie", calls Koi her "little punk girl."

"It's scary because it's a lot of money," says Tillie. "You really have no guarantee."

Tillie says she couldn't stand the idea of losing Koi after losing another beloved cat to cancer last fall.

"I'd say we could have known it worked within two days," Tillie says of the black market drug. "It's a completely different cat, it runs around, it wants to get everywhere."

Tillie knows this is against the law, but says the potential life-saving Koi is worth it.

"It would be really cruel to persecute people trying to save their animals," says Tillie. "We've gotten into a position where we have to decide whether to let our animal die or do everything in our power to save it, and I do."

Do you have a tip? Email ABC7 investigative producer

Amy Shafer and Tillie raise money to cover the cost of treating their cats.