MSNBC public editor: Who benefits from remdesivir coverage?

On April 29, MSNBC ran with a glowing report by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a rare trusted voice during the Trump administration’s pandemic response, on remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by Gilead Sciences. 

Fauci called recent findings on the drug “highly significant”: COVID-19 patients treated with remdesivir in a National Institutes of Health-sponsored controlled trial recovered a little faster—an average of 11 days, versus 15 days for those in the placebo group. On May 1, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for remdesivir in the treatment of severe COVID-19. 

THE MEDIA TODAY: Coronavirus testing is a freedom of information issue

Yet the promise of remdesivir is a distant one at best. No study has shown that the drug improves mortality rates in a statistically significant manner, only a modest improvement in time to recovery—and researchers aren’t agreed even on that. The results of a limited, concurrent trial in Hubei were published the same day the NIH findings were announced. Researchers in Hubei concluded that use of the drug “was not associated with a difference in time to clinical improvement.” Further, it can only be administered intravenously—that is, in the hospital—and it comes with a risk of significant side effects, including liver damage, low blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting. 

MSNBC, along with every other media outlet, should have been more critical of the trumpeted breakthrough. The network ran at least five stories about the drug. None of them mentioned that Joe Grogan, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, was a lobbyist for Gilead Sciences before he came to work for this president. None mentioned that Gilead—a company that has been accused of denying patients life-saving drugs in order to preserve its bottom line—had, briefly, obtained an FDA “orphan drug” designation for remdesivir, which would have allowed it to profit handsomely despite the public need for drugs to treat COVID-19. (Gilead later rescinded the request. And Grogan has also resigned.) 

A few did present appropriate skepticism. Brian Williams observed that Dr. Fauci’s optimistic remarks were made “with the president present… I wish we didn’t have to point that out, but we do.” His guest Dr. Irwin Redlener, an expert in disaster preparedness and pandemic influenza, agreed, and added, “We’re far from being convinced… we have a long way to go before we can say we have anything resembling a cure.” On The Last Word, Ali Velshi stressed that the drug wasn’t necessarily suitable for all hospitalized patients, and mentioned the risk of serious side effects.

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IT’S NOT UNREASONABLE for Dr. Fauci and other scientific researchers to express optimism—to be what you might call statistically optimistic. But for MSNBC viewers who may face the question of whether or not to seek remdesivir treatment for their loved ones, or for themselves, the network must put considerably more emphasis on the limitations and the risks—not to mention the financial interests involved. 

What is the worth, to Gilead, of Fauci’s applause for remdesivir, and the media coverage it attracted? You can bet the top brass at Gilead is thinking about its stock price. But during a May 1 appearance on NBC, Daniel O’Day, the company’s chief executive, dodged the question of profits. 

“These are such extraordinary times,” said Today host Savannah Guthrie. “Humanity is literally depending on companies like yours, and I think it’s fair to say some people do have trust issues with pharmaceutical companies. How are you thinking about that responsibility in this context?”

O’Day’s response was like Davos Mad Libs. “I’m very proud of what Gilead has done in the past two decades… privileged… humbled… it’s a real privilege and we’ll continue to show that we can make a difference with this pandemic in the future.”

 

FOR ALL ITS DEFICIENCIES, cable news does a spectacular job of winnowing vast amounts of information and generating coherent stories to tell its audiences of millions, on schedule, day after day. The volume of sources, the range of media, the mental firepower required to sift and research and write and film and broadcast it all is more than just impressive. It’s a cascade of concentrated attention that flows through the whole culture, through audiences, through government, through industry and religious organizations and every other institution—all destined to flow and circulate back through the media. The sheer cultural density of cable news produces its own gravitational pull, a massive attentional force, irresistible as the eye of Sauron. Whatever appears on cable news inevitably swells in significance and credibility. 

People’s lives depend on the network’s wise use of this power to provide accurate, skeptical, critical coverage. After many months of watching, I can’t help wondering how often that responsibility even crosses producers’ and executives’ minds. 

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Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.

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