A cheap antidepressant has reduced the need for hospitalization among high-risk adults with COVID-19 as part of a study to find existing drugs that could be used to treat the coronavirus.
Researchers tested the pill used for depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder because it was known to reduce inflammation and looked promising in small studies.
They shared their findings with the US National Institutes of Health, which publishes treatment guidelines and look forward to a recommendation from the World Health Organization.
“If the WHO recommends it, you will see that it is widely used,” said study co-author Dr. Edward Mills of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, adding that the drug is readily available in many poor countries. “We hope this will save many lives.”
A pill called fluvoxamine will cost $ 4 for COVID-19 treatment. In comparison, intravenous antibody therapy costs about $ 2,000, while Merck’s experimental COVID-19 antiviral pill costs about $ 700 per course. Some experts predict that various treatments will eventually be used to fight the coronavirus.
Researchers tested the antidepressant on nearly 1,500 Brazilians newly infected with the coronavirus who were at risk of serious illness due to other health problems such as diabetes. About half took the antidepressant at home for 10 days, the rest took pacifiers. They were tracked for four weeks to see who ended up in the hospital or spent extended time in the emergency department when hospitals were overcrowded.
In the group taking the drug, 11% required hospitalization or an extended stay in the emergency department, compared with 16% of those who took pacifiers.
The results, published Wednesday in the journal Lancet Global Health, were so compelling that independent experts overseeing the study recommended stopping it as soon as possible because the results were clear.
Questions remain about the best dosage, whether low-risk patients can benefit as well, and whether the pill should be combined with other treatments.
A larger project examined eight existing drugs to see if they could work against the pandemic virus. The project is still testing a cure for hepatitis, but all others, including metformin, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, have not materialized.
Merck’s low-cost generic and COVID-19 pills work in different ways and “can complement each other,” said Dr. Paul Sachs of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study. Earlier this month, Merck asked US and European regulators to authorize the production of antiviral pills.