Not Real News

In this Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, photo, Pfizer's Viagra, is photographed at Pfizer Inc. headquarters in New York. On Friday, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming Viagra can cure COVID-19. 

CLAIM: Viagra can cure COVID-19.

THE FACTS: Medical experts told The Associated Press that the use of Viagra to treat COVID-19 is “entirely unproven,” and cautioned against its use among COVID patients without further research. A spokesperson for Viatris, which markets Viagra, told the AP that the drug “is not indicated for COVID-19 or related symptoms.”

Claims that the commonly-used erectile dysfunction drug Viagra could be useful in treating — or even “curing” — COVID-19 began circulating online after one woman in the U.K. relayed her experience being prescribed the drug while battling the virus. In a Jan. 2 interview with a British tabloid, the 37-year-old woman credited Viagra with opening up her airways after she was hospitalized and placed in a medically-induced coma with severe COVID-19. Her story was discussed during a Fox News segment, further amplifying the claims.

Viagra functions by expanding blood vessels, helping increase blood flow. While this makes the drug effective in treating erectile dysfunction, the same properties also led the FDA to approve use of its active ingredient, sildenafil, for treatment of pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure that affects the lungs. With COVID-19, a hypothesis among some people is that because sildenafil helps relax blood vessels in the lungs, it may help improve oxygen levels among patients experiencing respiratory failure.

But Dr. Daniel Culver, a pulmonologist and director of the Interstitial Lung Disease Program at Cleveland Clinic, said there has been no strong evidence the drug has been successful in these cases.

“There has never been a survival benefit demonstrated from using any of these drugs for patients in the hospital with respiratory failure,” Culver said, adding: “Unless there are large studies demonstrating benefits that are important to patients, like survival or getting out of the hospital sooner, I think it’s dangerous to advocate use of sildenafil for COVID at this time.”

Dr. Ashley Winter, a urologist specializing in sexual dysfunction at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon, also warns against jumping to conclusions about the drug’s effectiveness against COVID. “Just because it dilates blood vessels doesn’t mean that it has any antiviral capabilities,” Winter said. “If somebody is early on in a COVID infection and they don’t have pulmonary hypertension — if you don’t need to treat that specific symptom associated with being severely ill — the Viagra is not going to do anything to your COVID infection.”

Some social media users cited a Jan. 3 study out of Chile, which evaluated the use of sildenafil for treating blood flow issues in the lungs of 40 COVID patients who were suffering respiratory complications. The researchers found “no statistically significant differences” in the oxygen status of patients who were given sildenafil and those who weren’t. The study did find that sildenafil could “have a potential therapeutic role” in preventing invasive ventilation under certain conditions for some COVID-19 patients, but the paper said the findings needed further research.

Culver advised readers to “exercise caution” when reviewing the results. “I don’t think we can suggest that it was this particular therapy that made a difference,” Culver said. “It’s possible but it’s entirely unproven. And in fact, it’s quite risky to use the active agent in Viagra, sildenafil, in patients with respiratory failure."

— Associated Press Writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report.