University of Utah Researchers Study Possible COVID-19 Treatment: An Ancient Antidepressant

Although people are getting vaccinated, one researcher says effective treatment could save lives in the meantime or help deal with vaccine-resistant variants.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Researchers from the U. are enrolling COVID-19 patients in a new study of a possible treatment.

A decades-old antidepressant drug may prevent coronavirus from causing serious illness, and the University of Utah is enrolling patients in a study to confirm whether it works.

The drug, fluvoxamine, is an early selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, a common type of antidepressant, similar to Prozac or Zoloft, developed in the 1980s.

But, infectious disease professor Dr. Adam Spivak said Thursday, “There is a lot of research to suggest that it acts as a very strong anti-inflammatory.”

That’s important because severe COVID-19 cases are likely related to inflammation caused by runaway immune responses that the virus triggers, Spivak said.

For the past year, researchers have been conducting trials on drugs with anti-inflammatory effects, from ibuprofen to the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

“We have a lot of anti-inflammatories on the shelf, everything from Motrin and Tylenol, to … drugs that we use for specific cancers,” Spivak said. “There has been a very rapid series of trials that looked at different anti-inflammatory drugs to address severe COVID.”

So far, only one of those drugs, a steroid called dexamethasone, has “really worked” and has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the treatment of coronavirus.

But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis completed the first trials with fluvoxamine in the fall and found that none of the patients taking it required hospital care, compared with 8% of coronavirus patients taking the placebo. Spivak said.

The drug has the same cellular mechanism as hydroxychloroquine, which then-President Donald Trump touted early in the pandemic as a “miracle” cure, but was later shown to be ineffective and possibly dangerous in treating the coronavirus.

That cellular mechanism is about 20 times more powerful in fluvoxamine than in hydroxychloroquine, Spivak said.

Now, the U. is working with the University of Washington to enroll Utah coronavirus patients in a follow-up trial. Investigators are looking for people who have recently tested positive for COVID-19 and who have developed symptoms within six days, who are at risk for serious illness, and who have not received a coronavirus vaccine.

Spivak acknowledged that, with vaccines increasing and cases declining, it may seem a bit late in the game for effective treatment for the coronavirus. But with the virus still spreading and mutating, he said, it’s important to be prepared for a possible vaccine-resistant variant.

“People are still getting COVID, and they still will until we have enough vaccinated people,” he said.


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