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The antidepressant may help dial back the body's immune response to COVID-19—which can actually be a good thing.

By Claire Gillespie
March 08, 2021
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The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been the main focus of attention over the last few months—more than 90 million doses have been administered since distribution began on December 14, at a rate of more than 2.2 million shots per day. But at the same time, scientists have continued to work hard to find treatments for people who get infected.

One of them, the generic drug fluvoxamine, has shown huge potential. Developed 40 years ago as an antidepressant, fluvoxamine—sometimes known as Luvox—has been used mainly to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), per the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). But now, researchers are taking a closer look at how the medication could be an important treatment to prevent patients who test positive for COVID-19 from getting seriously ill with the infection.

COVID-Fluvoxamine-Early-Treatment-For-COVID
Credit: Getty Images

In a new interview with 60 Minutes, Angela Reiersen, MD, a child psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis—and co-author of a November 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) regarding the use of fluvoxamine in COVID-19 patients—explained that she first got the idea that the drug could potentially treat COVID-19 after seeing research that fluvoxamine prevented sepsis in mice.

"I thought, well, I wonder if we could use fluvoxamine to treat COVID and prevent that clinical deterioration," Dr. Reiersen told 60 Minutes.

Dr. Reiersen and her colleagues—including Eric Lenze, MD, a fellow psychiatrist at Washington University who also specializes in finding new uses for drugs that are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—went on to conduct the small randomized clinical trial on fluvoxamine and COVID-19 patients.

The results of that JAMA study found that participants with symptomatic COVID-19 who were treated with fluvoxamine "had a lower likelihood of clinical deterioriation" than those who were given a placebo. "The results were really pretty incredible," Dr. Lenze told Alfonsi. "Out of the 80 people who received fluvoxamine, none, zero of them deteriorated versus 8% of the people who got [the] placebo."

Of course, since the study was only preliminary, researchers declared that more research was needed to determine "clinical efficacy" of the drug in COVID-19 patients. But that research sparked even more research on fluvoxamine's role in preventing serious disease in those with COVID-19 infections.

David Seftel, MD, a physician in Berkeley, California, opted to offer a 15-day prescription to his own COVID-19 patients, who fell victim to an outbreak in the Golden Gate Fields race track community. (FYI: His decision to use a prescription drug off-label is an accepted medical practice, provided the patient consents. "Off-label" simply means it hasn't been approved by the FDA for that particular condition.)

The results of Dr. Seftel's real world study, which were published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, showed that, of 65 of those patients who chose to take fluvoxamine, none were hospitalized, while of the 48 who declined the prescription, 12.5% ended up hospitalized, and one died.

Experts believe fluvoxamine has shown to be effective against COVID-19 due to the medication's effects on the body's inflammatory response—specifically by tamping down that response in those with active COVID-19 infections.

Normally, when the body is trying to fight off an invader like SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), it releases cytokines, or biological chemicals that stimulate cell pathways and allow for communication between cells. Those cytokines signal to the body's immune system that it needs to start doing its job. In some cases, though, the the outpouring of cytokines becomes accelerated—known as a cytokine storm—creating high levels of inflammation in the body. "Normally, cytokines are meant to be helpful to us in moderation," Carl Fichtenbaum, MD, professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, previously told Health, "but when a certain pathway is engaged [too much] the immune system starts causing damage to the patient."

This is where researchers think fluvoxamine comes into play. Though the drug typically works by increasing the amount of serotonin in the body, it also binds to and activates sigma-1 receptors, which may help reduce cytokine production in the body, according to a research article in Science Translational Medicine (this one, looking at patients with sepsis), and ultimately decrease the sometimes deadly inflammation that can occur in COVID-19 patients.

Though more research is still needed on the effects of fluvoxamine in COVID-19 patients—and yet another study led by Dr. Lenze is currently underway—when asked on if the positive results could have been a fluke, Dr. Seftel said, "I don't believe so. You cannot influence a virus that is as wily and as wicked as COVID with a fluke."

Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told Alfonsi that "fluvoxamine could certainly be something you wanna put in the tool chest [because] it looks as if it has the promise to reduce the likelihood of severe illness."

Although the vaccine rollout is greatly reducing the number of people who get seriously ill and are hospitalized with COVID-19, no vaccine offers 100% protection, and new mutations of the virus are appearing all the time. So it's still important to find new treatments for the illness. With more research, we'll have a clearer idea of the part fluvoxamine may play.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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