An inexpensive antidepressant reduced the need for hospitalization in high-risk adults with COVID-19 in a study of existing drugs that could potentially be repurposed to treat coronavirus.
Researchers chose to test the pill used for depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder because it was known to reduce inflammation and showed promise in smaller studies.
They’ve shared the results with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which publishes treatment guidelines, and are hoping for a World Health Organization recommendation.
“If WHO recommends this, you will see it widely taken up,” said study co-author Dr. Edward Mills of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, adding that many poor nations already have the drug available. “We hope it will lead to a lot of lives saved.”
Fluvoxamine would cost $4 for a course of COVID-19 treatment. Antibody IV treatments cost about $2,000 and Merck’s experimental antiviral pill for COVID-19 is about $700 per course. Some experts foresee several treatments eventually being used in combination to combat the coronavirus.
Researchers tested the antidepressant in nearly 1,500 Brazilians infected with coronavirus at risk of severe illness because of other health problems, such as diabetes. Half took the antidepressant at home for 10 days, the rest got placebos. The patients were followed for four weeks to determine who required hospital care.
In the group that took the drug, 11% needed hospital care compared to 16% of those that took the placebo.
The results, published Wednesday in the journal Lancet Global Health, were so compelling that independent experts monitoring the study said the results were clear.
Questions remain about dosage, whether lower-risk patients might benefit, and whether the pill should be used in conjunction with other treatments.
Researchers have already been looking at eight existing drugs to see if they could be used against the pandemic virus, testing is still being done on a hepatitis drug, but all the others — including metformin, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin were not approved.
The inexpensive fluvoxamine and Merck’s COVID-19 pill work differently and “may be complementary,” said Dr. Paul Sax of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Earlier this month, Merck asked regulators in the U.S. and Europe to authorize its antiviral pill.