FIPV is pretty much a guaranteed death sentence for cats, and the only way to cure it is with an experimental drug that doesn’t have FDA approval.
Oregon’s Nancy Ross and Nicole Randall of Texas knew that, and as importers selling the cure via the popular Facebook group FIP Warriors, the FDA says they banked on the desperation of people who would do almost anything to save their cats — including forking over vast sums of money.
Ross and Randall are now accused by the FDA of smuggling GS-441524 from China, where it’s manufactured illegally, and hiking the price by almost 16 times what they paid for it as they served as the middle women between desperate cat owners and the suppliers in Hong Kong.
Feline infectious peritonitis kills some 95 percent of cats it infects, and veterinarians often tell their clients with FIPV cats that while they can’t prescribe GS-441524, they will help administer it, track their cats’ progress through bloodwork and hopefully save feline lives — if the clients obtain the drug themselves.
FIP Warriors — now in its fifth incarnation as FIP Warriors 5.0 on Facebook — is where people with FIPV cats go to find suppliers. The group has more than 43,000 members, and the FDA says Randall made millions off of them, charging as much as $385 for vials of GS-441524 she obtained for between $25 and $45 from manufacturers in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Randall sold $9.6 million worth of GS-441524 to clients in the US, according to the FDA. Per The Oregonian:
“A spreadsheet found in Randall’s Google email showed customer orders of at least 58,460 vials and 236,836 pills of GS-441524 from July 2020 through June 6, 2022, the affidavit said.”
PITB spoke to several people who paid thousands of dollars for GS-441524 after their cats were diagnosed with FIPV. All of them said they were surprised by the news of the FDA’s investigation, and said they were given various reasons for why the drug was so expensive to acquire.
One customer from Texas, whose cat Seth began his regimen in July of 2020, told PITB she doesn’t regret spending the money to cure Seth, but she “can see how the people saw our desperate situation and took advantage of us.” She was told prices were at a premium because of scarcity.
“It was a very stressful time for us, and every time we needed to refill, they charged us more,” she said. “They knew we couldn’t say no.”
Another woman, whose kitten was diagnosed with FIPV in 2021, “was told that the prices were set because they ensure the medication was purchased from a trusted source.”
As a college student at the time, she used her savings and crowdfunded the other half, paying more than $5,000 for her kitten’s treatment. She said she doesn’t think the administrators of the group were ripping her off, since they had FIP cats of their own, and likely didn’t know the importers were making huge profits. She trusted the seller — who was not Ross or Randall — because the group vouched for that person, assuring her they supplied real pills.
“Of course, I don’t think this is a valid justification for hiking up prices up to 16x the amount,” she told PITB, “but I’m sincerely hoping the individual [accused by the FDA] had a valid reason for setting the prices that she did.”
Others paid even more exorbitant prices: a British woman we interviewed for a story about FIPV in 2022 said she paid about £7,000, or $9,400 at the time.
FDA investigators said they intercepted shipments from China and Hong Kong disguised as COVID masks, cat shampoo and chewable medicine for pets, and the Oregonian report says the shipments were listed as “essential oils” and “beauty products” in import documents.
Randall and Ross have not been charged criminally, but they are now targets of a civil asset forfeiture case:
“The government seized five of Randall’s bank and brokerage accounts and her 2022 Tesla Model Y car last year based on a warrant signed by a federal magistrate judge in Oregon.
The warrant identified the bank accounts and car as proceeds from the “crime of smuggling” and subject to forfeiture, according to the affidavit. It also alleged Randall, now 35, used the proceeds to buy several properties, including a ranch in Leander, Texas, in July 2021.”
While the FDA’s affidavit went into detail regarding Randall’s earnings, it describes shipments sent to Ross but does not specify how much she may have made in profit. An attorney for Randall told The Oregonian that the Texas woman will fight the civil asset forfeiture.
The illegal market for GS-441524 exists because the drug’s creator, Gilead Sciences of California, declined to submit it to the FDA for approval. That’s because it’s chemically similar to another drug the company makes, remdesivir, which was floated as a possible treatment for COVID-19. The company was worried any snags in a potential approval process for GS-441524 would also ensnare remdesivir, according to reports, putting the latter drug in limbo during the pandemic.
Now that the pandemic has retreated to much lower levels of infection and death, it’s not clear if Gilead Sciences will reconsider its FIPV medication, but there may be hope in the form of alternate treatments. A report from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) says scientists at the University of California-Davis and UC San Diego are working on several promising therapies, including a potential treatment using CRISPR gene-editing technology.