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Nurse peddles baseless claim that COVID treatment remdesivir is lethal

February 9, 2022 GMT
FILE - In this March 2020 photo provided by Gilead Sciences, rubber stoppers are placed onto filled vials of the investigational drug remdesivir at a Gilead manufacturing site in the United States. The drug, now a fully approved COVID-19 treatment in the U.S., was the subject of false claims in a widely shared video online. (Gilead Sciences via AP)
FILE - In this March 2020 photo provided by Gilead Sciences, rubber stoppers are placed onto filled vials of the investigational drug remdesivir at a Gilead manufacturing site in the United States. The drug, now a fully approved COVID-19 treatment in the U.S., was the subject of false claims in a widely shared video online. (Gilead Sciences via AP)

CLAIM: Remdesivir is “continuing to kill patients in the United States” and recipients have “a less than 25% chance of survival if they get more than two doses.”

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Experts say claims that remdesivir, an antiviral medicine approved as a COVID-19 treatment, is killing patients are baseless. Clinical trials did not find that the drug increases deaths among recipients.

THE FACTS: A video viewed millions of times on social media is spreading the baseless claim that an approved treatment for COVID-19 patients is actually lethal.

“They rolled out remdesivir under a substantial number of patients for which we all saw, it was killing the patients,” Nicole Sirotek, a nurse licensed in Nevada, claims in the video posted on YouTube and shared on various social media platforms. “And now it’s the FDA-approved drug that is continuing to kill patients in the United States.”

Sirotek was speaking during an event hosted by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in late January that was rife with falsehoods that then spread online. Sirotek went on to claim that “qualitative data with a humanistic phenomenological approach” that was collected by nurses show remdesivir recipients “have a less than 25% chance of survival if they get more than two doses.”

But experts say that there is no support for those claims, and that the data-gathering process she described is not a rigorous method for assessing the safety or efficacy of a drug.

Sirotek and her group, American Frontline Nurses, did not return multiple requests by the AP for data that would support the claim about deaths.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a Duke University associate professor of medicine who specializes in infectious diseases, said in an email that remdesivir was not shown to increase deaths in recipients in any of the clinical trials that have been conducted.

“In fact, they usually did better, especially if the drug was given early in the illness,” he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved remdesivir — distributed as Veklury by Gilead Sciences Inc. — to treat COVID-19 patients in October 2020, based on findings that it reduced patients’ recovery times. The drug is administered through an IV and works by inhibiting a substance the virus uses to make copies of itself. Former President Donald Trump was among those who received remdesivir when being treated for COVID-19 while he was in office.

The FDA expanded remdesivir’s use in January to include adults and children with early COVID-19 who face a high risk of ending up in the hospital. Remdesivir previously had been limited to hospitalized patients.

Studies have provided mixed results in terms of how beneficial remedesivir is, said Emily Heil, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Heil also said that data show it is more effective earlier in the course of an infection rather than later.

A recent randomized controlled trial sponsored by Gilead that assessed the use of the drug in unvaccinated outpatients who had at least one risk factor found that recipients were significantly less likely to be hospitalized.

While the drug may not be effective for all COVID-19 patients, such as those later in the disease progression and severely ill, Heil said, there is no evidence for the allegation that it is killing patients.

“Through all of these studies, there were zero signals that remdesivir made anything worse,” Heil said. She added that “there is really no plausible mechanistic way through which remdesivir could increase your risk of death.”

A retrospective study led by Johns Hopkins University researchers concluded that remdesivir was beneficial for hospitalized COVID-19 patients who were on low-flow oxygen or not on oxygen treatment. Recipients on low-flow oxygen were less likely to die when compared with a control group.

A falsehood spread by a former chiropractor last year erroneously attributed COVID-19 complications to remdesivir.

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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.