A few months ago, Matilda, the youngest of my two cats, was struggling to walk and constantly staggering and falling. The vet suspected he had a disease called FIP, which was terribly fatal. Or rather: a cure has been discovered in recent years, but the laboratory that developed the drug refuses to license its use. However, Chinese companies manufacture and sell the drug. Owners of sick cats resort to solidarity to pay the costs, which amount to about 30 thousand Brazilian reais.
Infectious peritonitis (FIP) is caused by a mutation in the enterovirus – although it is also a coronavirus such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, it does not infect humans. It spreads widely, causing mild or even asymptomatic infection in most cases. The big problem arises when the virus mutates in the body and the feline peritonitis virus becomes contagious.
FIP has two versions: wet, in which fluid accumulates in the animal’s abdomen or chest, and dry. The former are more common and develop faster, while the latter often lead to eye or nervous system damage. Other signs include diarrhea, decreased appetite, fever, weight loss, and jaundice.
Diagnosis is difficult, since there is no specific test – it is necessary to analyze several factors and exclude other hypotheses. Disease used to be a death sentence for cats: Once diagnosed, the animal has a prognosis of weeks or months of survival. But that started to change a few years ago.
A cure that was discovered but never arrived
In a 2018 field study conducted at the University of California, Davis, 31 cats with FIP were treated with a drug with a complex name: GS-441524. 25 of these were treated, 18 in the first cycle of applications and another seven after relapse and receiving further doses. Not only were the results encouraging, they were completely at odds with previous attempts.
To give you an idea, one of the biggest successes so far was in the 2017 study. It involved 20 cats and a drug called GC376, with seven survivors—the other 13 initially responded to treatment but did not. It might not sound like much, but it would be a huge step forward.
The two studies have a joint author: veterinarian Niels C. Pedersen. He was also responsible for identifying Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, in the 1980s, another acronym that those who have cats often fear. Pedersen has devoted most of his career to studying PIF and trying to find a cure.
Pederson has known a former chief scientific officer of Gilead Sciences, the lab that developed GS-441524, since the company was developing the first HIV drugs and was studying primates, which were guinea pigs in the first tests. The vet has ordered some of the molecules in development for testing in cats, and researchers from the company have been involved in testing with animals.
However, the great success of his career did not go as expected: the company refused to license the drug for use in cats.
If you’ve been following the news about the COVID-19 pandemic closely, the name Gilead Sciences shouldn’t sound strange: it is responsible for creating remdesivir.
This drug was first tested against Ebola, to no avail. With the advent of COVID-19, hope is on again, undergoing new tests. Even with modest results, it has been approved for emergency use in several parts of the world – including Brazil.
The two substances have a lot in common: remdesivir is metabolized in the body and becomes GS-441524. The procedure is the same: they get into the RNA replication of viruses and stop the process, fighting off infection.
The similarity is a major reason for Laad’s refusal to release the drug for use in cats: unexpected effects could get in the way of approval for wider use of remdesivir. As Richard Sachlebin, a veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, explains AtlanticOne of the rules for drug development is precisely the following: Do not perform unnecessary tests to avoid problematic results.
Some Chinese companies tried to license the property, but there was no agreement. But this was not the end of the road: they went ahead and began to manufacture the drug even without permission.
Solidarity to achieve
One day my cat was sick, an advertisement popped up for me. The Instagram algorithm may have determined that I spend a lot of time watching pet reels. He may have even reviewed the data and found that I was looking for the disease. You are the perfect audience.
The post was backed by a cat asking for help paying for FIP treatment. In the comments for this post, there were more cat profiles, almost all with the word “pif” in their username. They also called for help and sent messages of support to their colleague – or “amicat”, as they called it. It was then that I discovered that resorting to solidarity was practically the only option to pay for the medicine.
To save their cats from PIF, owners turn to Chinese companies that make GS-441524 – or just GS, as the owners call it. However, the treatment has a very high cost: a column of a sheet talking about $5,000 to $10,000; In Brazil, it is estimated at about 30 thousand Brazilian reals.
In addition to being very expensive for our realities, it is necessary to get money quickly. The treatment protocol follows the observational study by Pedersen, with 84 injections per day. The dose applied depends on the weight of the pet and on certain criteria, such as the type of FIP and the presence of neurological or visual involvement. Therefore, the cost may be lower or higher.
The drug represents the largest cost, but not the only one. During this time, it is necessary to periodically repeat examinations to check the development of health, adjust doses and even extend treatment, if necessary.
If everything is in order, it is necessary to monitor the animal for another 90 days, a period when relapses and the need for further applications may persist. Only after that can it be said that the cat has been cured.
In order for you to be able to buy medicine, teachers ask for donations and withdraw pet products, electronics, and even sums of money. They also look for patrons or, as they are commonly called, “dindos”: people who commit to helping out on a monthly basis and closely monitoring the pet’s treatment.
Some sell clothes and other belongings, make crafts or sweets, and ask followers to shop at major retailers and pet stores using their affiliate links. All this for the money to pay for treatment.
Two particularly difficult moments in fundraising. One in the beginning, when the animal is very sick and needs to start treatment as soon as possible, but the number of followers is still low.
The other is in the “final stage”. FIP primarily attacks puppies and grows during treatment. In addition, they become healthier and gain weight. This means that application doses are increased. As a result, teachers need to order larger amounts of medication or more frequently.
Cases vary greatly. There are those who have taken a cat that has become so beloved by the children of the family that they do not want it to leave in such a short time. There are those who were adopted and returned to shelters when the disease was diagnosed. There are protectors who already spend a lot to maintain food for many animals, but still decide not to give up the life of a sick cat. There are those who saved the trash and only discovered that there was a chance of recovery when there was only one disease survivor. And so it is.
Every like is important
Instagram has become a community for many teachers. And while the social network is a great way to get more people to help out, you need to know how to “dodge” the algorithm. It’s been a while since the feed has been organized in chronological order; Instead, it only shows content that the user finds interesting. Therefore, mutual assistance is necessary.
Profiles of cats with FIP – or “pifentinhos,” an affectionate nickname for such a terrible disease – Comment on each other’s posts and share stories when the animal needs treatment or is short of money to apply for a new one.
Owners also ask to like, share and comment with at least four words (and without repeating other posts or posting multiple times, so the algorithm doesn’t consider spam), tag friends and save the post.
Thus, Instagram “understands” that the post is relevant and appears to more people, which increases the chance of getting contributions. In all of them, there are a number of hashtags, specific to diseases and broader topics, such as cats or pets.
This makes a huge difference – so much so that even owners of treated cats stay active on the network to participate in this way. They explained that even those who cannot contribute financially can help “build” an Instagram of a sick pet through these interactions. The day when Facebook and its products discontinued, by the way, were terrible in terms of revenue, that was the significance of the platform.
Transparency in the process is also important because many people suspect a coup is taking place. Owners share test results, prescriptions, payment slips, and pictures of drug vials. Some are even posting videos of pets receiving injections to prove that the disease is real and that the kit is really necessary.
FIP second opinion ruled out for my cat – the hypothesis is now a genetic muscle problem, which can be resolved with protein and vitamin supplements. Since then, I’ve gained weight, stopped groggy, and got back to playing at home again.
However, she continued to follow “pifentinhos”. My Instagram feed has turned into a roulette of feelings. I feel sad when I see that the puppy, still at the beginning of treatment, cannot resist and has become a “little star”. Celebrate when a pet’s treatment period ends or when observation ends without relapses. I share a little bit of the agony of the owners who are racing against time to get their medicine.
In an article published in 2019, Pedersen showed that he was aware of the illegal market for cat drugs. He cautions that there are many uncertainties regarding how to conduct the treatment outside of laboratory conditions and product quality, but promises that he will continue to do research to guide owners and veterinarians.
The scientist says that the drug will certainly be approved and marketed naturally in the coming years. Although the drug is still quite expensive, this will certainly facilitate access to treatment.
I hope he is right. I will see many happy posts on my Instagram today.