Anatomy of a black market drug.

Part One.

Definition: “Black market is the illegal business of buying or selling currency or goods banned by a government or subject to governmental control. Also designates a place where such illegal business is carried on.”

When I first became part of the FIP community five years ago, I never imagined that I would one day be writing about black market activity in connection with Feline Infectious Peritonitis. It sounds improbable. And yet, here we are. There is indeed a black market for the nucleoside analog known as GS-441524, a proprietary chemical owned by Gilead Science.

I spent several months researching this particular matter. I have talked to people who are now active participants in this illegal trade, either as purveyors or facilitators. I contacted suppliers to get a sense of the market – pricing, methods of shipping to avoid customs scrutiny, etc. I talked to many users. I gathered information from all sources, so I could form an educated opinion before writing anything. I was thorough, and above all, I kept an open mind. Like everyone in the field, there is nothing I would like better than an effective, regulated, treatment against FIP. But black marketeers peddling an unregulated substance stolen from an American biotechnology company (Gilead Science) isn’t the way to go.

The picture that emerged from my investigation is a disturbing one. It is a mix of misguided notions, deception, exploitation of desperate cat guardians, mendacity, and utter disregard for the safety and well being of sick cats. If this were happening in the field of human medicine, the participants would be prosecuted or in jail. But we are talking about cats; at least in the mind of some, it makes the crime an inconsequential one.

As the parent of a cat with FIP, I know all too well how it feels when someone tells you your cat is going to die. I have been there. Though my cat is in full remission, I’ll never forget the hopelessness and sense of defeat. So, let’s be clear: I do understand the motivation that drives cat guardians to look into GS-441524, even if it’s illegal. All they want is to save their cats. I do not blame the users; they are, in my opinion, victims. They are promised a cure that isn’t one. The narrative they hear is that GS is their only option. But they can’t complain if their cat relapses and dies, because they are using a substance in a vial (or pill) that they knowingly acquired illegally. For the black market resellers, it is a win-win situation.

So, who’s to blame here? The answer is simple: the people who are knowingly aiding and abetting the sale of the black market GS441524 by giving it a seal of approval. The black market would not exist, not to such a degree, if it had not received the validation of the University of California Davis and its lead researcher, Dr. Niels Pedersen.

HOW A CALIFORNIA UNIVERSITY BECAME INSTRUMENTAL IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF BLACK MARKET GS-441524

Various statements released by Dr. Pedersen on the black market situation, both on UC Davis’s website and Dr Pedersen’s fundraising arm sockfip.com are puzzling.

On April 26, 2019, he starts by writing he does not support the black market.
I have been opposed to the black-market use of GC or GS mainly because I have seen the “wild-west-like” situations that it creates.

Then he proceeds to contradict himself by professing assistance to users of the same black market GS-441525 he previously denigrated:
I will continue to provide as much advice as possible for owners and veterinarians contemplating the use of black-market GS and GC to treat cats with FIP. ” Either he supports it, or he does not, but Dr. Pedersen cannot have it both ways. How can the professor emeritus of a prestigious university fail to see the contradiction, not to mention the ethical and legal quandary? It seems improbable, to say the least.

On June 18, 2019, the narrative changes, with a new statement, once again published on both UC Davis and SockFIP websites. UC Davis does not post anything it does not endorse. Therefore, the publication confirms that UC Davis and Niels Pedersen are actively promoting the use of a bootleg version of an experimental drug that does not belong to them. GS-441524 belongs to Gilead Science, that’s what “GS” stands for.

A ROAD MAP TO SUPPLIERS AND AN ENDORSEMENT OF SELECTED OUTLETS.

The June 18, 2019 statement reads like an endorsement of the black market products and a road map to the acquisition of said products. Niels C. Pedersen, DVM, PhD, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, School of Veterinary Medicine University of California Davis gives his seal of approval to manufacturers, suppliers and distribution network. The disclaimer at the end of the letter is nothing more than a feeble attempt to maintain a semblance of moral and ethical standards. But it should not fool anyone. We have now entered an era where universities and their professors are playing their version of Breaking Bad. The entire statement is confounding. Here are a few examples: “Information on where and how to obtain GC-376 and GS-441524 is easily found on social websites. These websites have evolved from cat owner groups who have personal experience with FIP and the black market treatment.” Here is the professor acknowledging the unlawful existence of entities dedicated to the supply and sale of black market version of a chemical he used in his research. Then this: “We now know that hundreds, if not thousands, of cats around the world are now being successfully treated for FIP using black market obtained drugs. These favorable responses appear to confirm our own published research […]. Owner groups have become very adept, based on personal experiences, in identifying the most biologically active and economic sources of GC and GS.” If that is not the same as telling people to buy black market GS, then I don’t know what is. And more: “Drugs offered by individuals are often packaged and labeled as dietary supplements, which allows easier entry through customs control of other countries.” In addition to inviting people to buy illegal drugs, they are also informed how to defeat customs scrutiny. One could expect this type of guidance from drug dealers, but coming from the University of California Davis, a member school of the largest State University system in the US is shocking. Finally, we have this, in the last paragraph:
I must make it clear that I would have preferred these drugs to be approved and commercialized in the normal manner.” What is clear is that in a few short weeks, Dr. Pedersen went from “I have been opposed” to “I would have preferred“. Along with his willy-nilly acknowledgment that perhaps black market chemicals aren’t the “normal” option, Dr. Pedersen makes it clear that UC Davis will take no responsibility for the outcome of their use: “UC Davis […] obligations are only to assure owners and veterinarians that our published findings are accurate, reproducible, and applicable.” In short, take the credit if all goes well, but decline responsibility if things go south — another win-win situation.
I understand that a black market exists for virtually anything and that GS-442524 is no exception. But this is the first time in my life that I have seen a US university coddling an illegal trade. Where is the ethical compass here? Over the years, thousands of people have donated to FIP research. Winn Feline Foundation, SockFIP, The Morris Fund, The Bria Fund, etc., have all raised significant funds for UC Davis/Dr. Pedersen’s research. How do they feel about it now? Is this why they donated? To end up with a high-priced, unregulated substance manufactured in China as a bootleg of the proprietary formula of Gilead Science? One person has tried to bring some order to the situation currently facing the FIP community. Susan Gingrich personally got involved as a Gilead stockholder, founder of the Bria Fund and Winn Feline Foundation board member. Mrs. Gingrich also used her political connections to draw attention to the rampant black market of an unvalidated chemical substance to unaware owners. Her open letter to Gilead is easily found online. Mrs. Gingrich highlights the reasons why any treatment for FIP should be tested, approved, and regulated by the government – in this case, the Food and Drugs Administration – She points out that safety is only possible with regulated products; that GS-441524 is Gilead’s property, and that its counterfeit version is peddled as a “cure” for FIP without any validation of the claim. We’ll have to wait and see what unfolds from her actions, now that Mrs. Gingrich has appraised both Gilead Science and the US government of the black market existence.