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A nurse cares for a COVID-19 patient in an acute care unit, Jan. 14, 2022. (AP) A nurse cares for a COVID-19 patient in an acute care unit, Jan. 14, 2022. (AP)

A nurse cares for a COVID-19 patient in an acute care unit, Jan. 14, 2022. (AP)

Gabrielle Settles
By Gabrielle Settles February 10, 2022

No, hospitalized COVID-19 patients weren’t killed by remdesivir

If Your Time is short

  • An early study in 2020 showed that remdesivir used to treat COVID-19 resulted in little to no improvement. Later studies found the drug was effective, including one that found an 87% lower risk of hospitalization or death. 

  • No studies have found that remdesivir was responsible for killing COVID-19 patients.

  • Medical experts explained that remdesivir is given to patients who are at the highest risk of death because of the severity of their disease.

At a panel discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a nurse claimed that remdesivir, an intravenous antiviral drug used to treat people hospitalized with COVID-19, is actually killing patients. 

Nicole Sirotek, founder of American Frontline Nurses — a group that opposes vaccines and promotes unproven remedies for COVID-19 —  told the gathering that when she went to New York in May 2020 to help with the accelerating COVID-19 crisis, she "didn’t see a single patient die of COVID" in the hospital.

She blamed the deaths on the use of remdesivir, which had just received an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for adults and children hospitalized with severe COVID-19. The FDA has since given full approval to remdesivir for hospitalized patients and for outpatients at high risk of getting severely sick. 

"We all saw it was killing the patients," Sirotek said at the Jan. 25 panel. "And now it’s the FDA approved drug that is continuing to kill patients across the United States. Sirotek also said that patients who received two doses of the drug had a less than 25% chance of survival. 

Johnson has been a longtime critic of the COVID-19 vaccines. His panel also featured other medical workers who have opposed the COVID-19 vaccines, including Dr. Robert Malone and Dr. Harvey Risch.

The video of Sirotek’s speech was posted on YouTube and shared on Facebook. Facebook flagged it as part of the company’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Published data and medical experts whom we spoke to contradicted Sirotek’s claim. 

Remdesivir is given to people in the hospital whose severe COVID-19 cases put them at high risk of dying, the experts explained. So those who get the drug may die. But there’s no evidence that the drug is what’s killing them. They said Sirotek’s conclusions were based on anecdotal observations and assumptions, not scientific evidence.

We reached out to Sirotek’s organization for comment and more information to back up her statements, but did not receive a response. 

What studies say about remdesivir

Remdesivir is an intravenous drug sold by Gilead Sciences Inc. under the brand name Veklury. Until recently, it was approved only for hospital settings, but on Jan. 21, 2022, the FDA approved it to be used for non-hospitalized patients at risk of developing severe COVID-19, and lowered the age limit below 12. Former President Donald Trump was treated with remdesivir when he was hospitalized with COVID-19 in October 2020

The drug was first put forward as an investigational COVID-19 treatment in early 2020, at a time when doctors and researchers were still learning about the disease and how to treat it. 

Studies have shown varying degrees of effectiveness.

In granting the emergency use authorization for the drug on May 1, 2020, the FDA said: "While there is limited information known about the safety and effectiveness of using remdesivir to treat people in the hospital with COVID-19, the investigational drug was shown in a clinical trial to shorten the time to recovery in some patients."

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The agency was referring to preliminary results from an April 2020 clinical trial conducted by the National Institutes of Health that found that hospitalized patients who received remdesivir recovered from the illness 31% faster than those who received a placebo.

An earlier study by the World Health Organization, conducted across 30 countries with over 11,000 adult patients, had found the drug had little to no effect. The WHO still does not recommend remdesivir for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, citing limited evidence that it works.

One of the most recent studies, published in The New England Journal on Jan. 27, involved 562 non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients. A three-day course of remdesivir "had an acceptable safety profile and resulted in an 87% lower risk of hospitalization or death than placebo," the study concluded.

No causal relationship between drug and deaths

None of the studies concluded that the drug was causing deaths.

"We simply did not see an increase in death in the group that received the drug," said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, associate professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at Duke University, who has treated patients with remdesivir at the university’s hospital and in the outpatient infusion clinic. Wolfe was also a principal investigator in the NIH clinical study, and the clinical trials run by Gilead Sciences. 

"That has never been seen in multiple rigorous trials," Wolfe added. "In fact, they usually did better, especially if the drug was given early in the illness."

Experts said Sirotek’s conclusion incorrectly assumed a causal relationship to explain the correlation she observed between remdesivir use and patient deaths.

Because remdesivir was initially authorized only for people hospitalized with severe COVID-19, "people who were more likely to receive the antiviral, or more of the antiviral, or more frequent dosing of the antiviral, are more likely to have been sick," said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. 

What Sirotek observed, he said, "is that essentially the drug selects for the sicker patient."

Our ruling

Sirotek claimed that remdesivir is responsible for killing patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

Neither medical data nor experts back this statement up. Studies have differed on how effective it is as a treatment for COVID-19, but none of them suggest that it’s causing deaths. 

Experts noted that remdesivir is given to patients who are at the highest risk of death because of the severity of their disease.

We rate the claim False. 

Our Sources

Sen. Ron Johnson press release, VIDEO RELEASE Sen. Ron Johnson COVID-19: A Second Opinion Panel Garners Over 800,000 Views in 24 Hours, Jan. 25, 2022

American Frontline Nurses, accessed Feb. 7, 2022

YouTube video, Jan. 25, 2022

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Issues Emergency Use Authorization for Potential COVID-19 Treatment, May 1, 2020

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Approves First Treatment for COVID-19, Oct. 22, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson uses God in one of multiple attempts at sowing doubt over the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, Jan. 7, 2022

PolitiFact, Who is Robert Malone? Joe Rogan’s guest was a vaccine scientist, became an anti-vaccine darling, Jan. 6, 2022

PolitiFact, No, vaccinated people don’t make up 60% of new COVID-19 cases, April 29, 2021

Defeat the Mandates: An American Homecoming Featured Guests list, accessed Feb. 10, 2022

FDA, FDA Takes Actions to Expand Use of Treatment for Outpatients with Mild-to-Moderate COVID-19, Jan. 21, 2022

NPR, Trump Is Taking Remdesivir. Here's How It Works To Control The Coronavirus, Oct. 3, 2020

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH Clinical Trial Shows Remdesivir Accelerates Recovery from Advanced COVID-19, April 29, 2020

The New England Journal of Medicine, Repurposed Antiviral Drugs for Covid-19 — Interim WHO Solidarity Trial Results, Feb. 11, 2021

The New England Journal of Medicine, Early Remdesivir to Prevent Progression to Severe Covid-19 in Outpatients, Jan. 27, 2022

Gilead Sciences, Inc. Gilead Announces Results From Phase 3 Trial of Remdesivir in Patients With Moderate COVID-19, June 1, 2020

Phone interview with Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Feb. 7, 2022

Email interview with Dr. Cameron Wolfe, associate professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at Duke University, Feb. 8. 2022

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No, hospitalized COVID-19 patients weren’t killed by remdesivir

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