Drug used to treat anxiety could help prevent severe COVID-19 illness, study says

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A small-scale study conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine revealed fluvoxamine may help prevent serious illness in COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms who did not require hospitalization.

During the clinical trial, the antidepressant was compared with a placebo in 152 adult outpatients infected with the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

After 15 days, none of the 80 patients who took fluvoxamine “experienced serious clinical deterioration,” according to the study. Six of the 72 patients who received the placebo became ill and four of those were hospitalized.

“The patients who took fluvoxamine did not develop serious breathing difficulties or require hospitalization for problems with lung function,” said Dr. Eric J. Lenze, with the Wallace and Lucille Renard Professor of Psychiatry, according to the release. “Most investigational treatments for COVID-19 have been aimed at the very sickest patients, but it’s also important to find therapies that prevent patients from getting sick enough to require supplemental oxygen or to have to go to the hospital. Our study suggests fluvoxamine may help fill that niche.”

The study was a collaboration between the university’s Department of Psychiatry and Division of Infectious Diseases..

The drug, which affects chemicals in the brain that may be unbalanced, is normally used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder and depression, the release said.

“Past research has demonstrated that fluvoxamine can reduce inflammation in animal models of sepsis, and it may be doing something similar in our patients,” senior author Dr. Angela M Reiersen, an associate professor of psychiatry, said in the release.

The study was conducted remotely during the pandemic, and when a symptomatic patient tested positive, the research staff would deliver the medication or inactive placebo to them.

For a two week period, the patients would take either the drug or placebo and have daily interactions — via phone or computer — with the staff and would report on their symptoms, oxygen levels and other vital signs, the release said. Those whose oxygen levels dropped below 92% or experienced shortness of breath were hospitalized.

“The good news is that not a single person taking the active medication experienced deterioration,” Reiersen said. “We believe this drug may be the reason, but we need to study more patients to make sure.”

A larger study will be conducted in the next few weeks, the release reported.

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