On April 24, News Front Georgia, a pro-Kremlin news site popular in the former Soviet states, published a Georgian language article headlined: “Anti-corona medication of an American firm linked to ‘Lugar Lab’ turns out to be useless.”
The report is false.
News Front claimed the results in the first clinical trial of the U.S.-developed antiviral drug remdesivir showed it to be ineffective against COVID-19. It also linked the medication with the debunked and recycled anti-U.S. conspiracy theory about the Lugar Lab in Georgia.
Remdesivir is an experimental antiviral medication created by the U.S. biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. It was developed as an anti-Ebola drug which, despite multiple trials, has never been approved for use anywhere. Despite that, it has been used in several African countries since 2015.
The drug received international attention after being named as a potential COVID-19 treatment. U.S. President Donald Trump highlighted remdesivir in mid-March, and his administration said it is expanding access to the medication to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
On April 29, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) released a statement on a preliminary data analysis of a remdesivir trial that began on February 21 and involved 1,063 patients.
It found a 31 percent faster recovery time for patients with advanced COVID-19 and lung involvement who received remdesivir compared to similar patients who received a placebo. The data also showed a lower mortality rate among patients receiving remdesivir: 8 percent compared to 11.6 percent among placebo group.
Also, on Wednesday, April 29, Gilead Sciences released preliminary results of its coronavirus drug trial, which involved 397 hospitalized patients with severe cases of COVID-19. They were divided into two groups taking remdesivir for either five or 10 days. More than half of the patients in both treatment groups were discharged from the hospital within 14 days. This study did not evaluate remdesivir against a control group not getting the drug.
Although the News Front Georgia article was published prior to these new study results, the website mischaracterized the results of earlier trials.
“The first clinical trial on remdesivir, an experimental medication of the company Gilead Sciences, which has been seen as one of the promising and most successful medications in treating coronavirus, proved a failure“ News Front Georgia claimed.
Citing a Financial Times report, News Front Georgia said a WHO study conducted by Chinese scientists found that remdesivir did not improve the condition of COVID-19 patients or decrease the amount of the novel coronavirus, SARS-Cov-2, in the bloodstream.
In fact, the clinical trial that News Front Georgia referred to was neither the first nor the only such trial. There was an earlier clinical trial, and several others are ongoing.
The first clinical trial of remdesivir on COVID-19 patients in serious condition was conducted by the University of Chicago Medicine and received some positive reviews. The “clinical trial is seeing rapid recoveries in fever and respiratory symptoms, with nearly all patients discharged in less than a week,” the health news website Stat reported on April 16.
News Front Georgia also ignored the fact that Gilead Sciences swiftly responded to the Financial Times report about the Chinese trial.
The company said a summary of the results of the trial was published by the WHO prematurely, without the consent of the researchers who conducted it, and that it contained “inappropriate characterizations of the study.”
According to STAT, the WHO removed the summary from its website and issued a statement saying that the document “was inadvertently posted on the website and taken down as soon as the mistake was noticed.”
According to the News Front Georgia story, a total of 237 patients were involved in the clinical trial, of which 158 were treated with remdesivir. None of these patients showed improvement, and 18 patients dropped out of the study because of significant adverse side effects.
Although the numbers correspond with the data in the WHO document, a snapshot of which was published by STAT, News Front failed to report that the study was terminated prematurely or the reasons for the early termination.
Gilead Sciences said it was shut down because a low number of participants was insufficient to provide “statistically meaningful conclusions.”
There should have been 453 patients in the trial, but China failed to enroll that many because the epidemic had been “controlled well” in the country, according to China’s Capital Medical University.
News Front Georgia also erroneously reported that Gilead Sciences is co-owned by former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and claimed that the company had supplied the Lugar Lab in Tbilisi, Georgia, with the company’s hepatitis C medication, Sovaldi, so that it could be tried on Georgian citizens.
Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary to U.S. presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, was the chairman of Gilead’s board of directors from 1997 to 2001. He is not listed among Gilead’s top direct shareholders. The largest shareholders in the company are investment institutions.
The News Front Georgia story claimed that experiments using Sovaldi had resulted in the deaths of 49 Georgian citizens, citing documents presented by the former Georgian security chief Igor Giorgadze.
Giorgadze linked this to the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, a laboratory known as Lugar Lab, which was built jointly by the U.S. and Georgia in Tbilisi. Russia has alleged for years that the U.S. develops biological weapons at the Lugar Lab.
These recycled claims have been previously examined and proven false.
Sovaldi was approved by the FDA in 2013, and a hepatitis C elimination program began in Georgia in 2015.
The Lugar Lab is a diagnostic facility for various infectious diseases, including hepatitis C, not a treatment facility. Some patients involved in the hepatitis C elimination program died due to severity of their health condition, not as a result of the treatment.
This conspiracy theory was debunked by many media outlets.