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Experts say Viagra isn’t a known ‘cure’ for COVID-19

January 12, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: Viagra can cure COVID-19.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Medical experts told The Associated Press that the use of Viagra to treat COVID-19 is “entirely unproven,” and cautioned against its use among COVID patients without further research. A spokesperson for Viatris, which markets Viagra, told the AP that the drug “is not indicated for COVID-19 or related symptoms.”

THE FACTS: Claims that the commonly-used erectile dysfunction drug Viagra could be useful in treating — or even “curing” — COVID-19 began circulating online this month after one woman in the U.K. relayed her experience being prescribed the drug while battling the virus.

In a Jan. 2 interview with a British tabloid, The Sun, the 37-year-old woman credited Viagra with opening up her airways after she was hospitalized and placed in a medically-induced coma with severe COVID-19. Her story was discussed during a Fox News segment on Friday, further amplifying the claims.

Viagra functions by dilating, or expanding, blood vessels, helping increase blood flow. While this makes the drug effective in treating erectile dysfunction, the same properties also led the FDA to approve use of its active ingredient, sildenafil, for treatment of pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure that affects arteries in the lungs.

With COVID-19, a hypothesis among some people is that because sildenafil helps relax blood vessels in the lungs, it may help improve oxygen levels among patients experiencing severe respiratory failure.

But Dr. Daniel Culver, a pulmonologist and director of the Interstitial Lung Disease Program at Cleveland Clinic, said there has been no strong evidence the drug has been successful in these cases.

“It’s an old idea that’s been around for at least 30 years and despite numerous studies, there has never been a survival benefit demonstrated from using any of these drugs for patients in the hospital with respiratory failure,” Culver said.

He added that the topic would need to be researched further before establishing any link to treating COVID-19.

“Unless there are large studies demonstrating benefits that are important to patients, like survival or getting out of the hospital sooner, I think it’s dangerous to advocate use of sildenafil for COVID at this time,” he said.

Dr. Ashley Winter, a urologist specializing in sexual dysfunction at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon, also warns against jumping to conclusions about the drug’s effectiveness against COVID.

“Just because it dilates blood vessels doesn’t mean that it has any antiviral capabilities,” Winter said, emphasizing the difference between treating the virus and treating a symptom of it.

“If somebody is early on in a COVID infection and they don’t have pulmonary hypertension — if you don’t need to treat that specific symptom associated with being severely ill — the Viagra is not going to do anything to your COVID infection,” she added.

Some social media users attempted to legitimize the claim by citing a recent study out of Chile. The randomized, pilot trial evaluated the use of sildenafil for treating blood flow issues in the lungs of 40 COVID-19 patients who were suffering respiratory complications. The study published Jan. 3 found “no statistically significant differences” in the oxygen status of patients who were given sildenafil and those who weren’t.

The study did find that sildenafil could “have a potential therapeutic role” in preventing invasive ventilation under certain conditions for some COVID-19 patients, but the paper said the findings needed further research.

Culver noted that the study was narrow, and advised readers to “exercise caution” when reviewing the results.

“I don’t think we can suggest that it was this particular therapy that made a difference,” Culver said. “It’s possible but it’s entirely unproven. And in fact, it’s quite risky to use the active agent in Viagra, sildenafil, in patients with respiratory failure. It can actually make things worse.”

A spokesperson for Viatris confirmed the drug has not been formally approved for use against COVID.

“Viagra or Revatio, both of which contain sildenafil as an active ingredient, should only be used in the approved indications and always under the supervision of a physician,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Patients should consult their physician for treatment and/or health related decisions.”

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.