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Antidepressants may prevent severe illness in COVID-19, study finds

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Antidepressants may prevent severe illness in COVID-19, study finds
Antidepressant drugs called SSRIs may help treated severe COVID-19, according to a new study. File photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Treating COVID-19 patients with antidepressant drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, appears to reduce disease severity, a study published Monday by JAMA Network Open found.

Infected patients treated with any SSRI were 8% less likely to die from the virus than those who did not receive the drugs, which are used in people with depression, the data showed.

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Treatment with the SSRIs fluoxetine, which has been sold under the brand name Prozac, among others, or fluvoxamine, or Luvox, reduced the risk for death from COVID-19 by more than 25%, the researchers said.

The findings suggest that SSRIs, particularly fluoxetine and fluvoxamine, may offer a promising treatment for the virus, though larger clinical trials assessing their use are needed, according to the researchers.

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"Our study simply shows an association between SSRIs and COVID-19 outcomes," study co-author Marina Sirota told UPI in an email.

"Additional clinical trials need to be carried out before these drugs can be used in patients going forward," said Sirota, an associate professor of computational health sciences at the University of California-San Francisco.

Since the start of the pandemic, researchers have assessed several existing drugs as potential treatments for the virus.

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For example, the steroid dexamethasone has helped reduce the lung and heart inflammation caused by severe COVID-19 and is now being used in many hospitalized patients.

In addition, antiviral drugs such as Paxlovid from Pfizer and molnupiravir from Merck appear to prevent serious illness after infection, according to their respective manufacturers.

Earlier studies have also found that fluvoxamine treatment may reduce an infected person's risk for developing severe COVID-19.

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Conversely, studies of statins, which are used to lower cholesterol, have produced mixed results in infected patients.

For this research, Sirota and her colleagues analyzed data on more than 3,400 COVID-19 patients treated with various SSRIs, with 470 receiving fluoxetine only and 481 given either fluoxetine or fluvoxamine.

Among patients prescribed any SSRI, 15% died following treatment compared with 17% of those not given the drugs, the data showed.

However, of those treated with fluoxetine or either fluoxetine or fluvoxamine, 10% died, the researchers said.

It is unclear why these commonly used anti-depressants are seemingly effective against COVID-19, according Sirota.

Up to 10% of adults in the United States are prescribed the drugs for depression and anxiety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

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"[Our study] doesn't investigate the mechanism of action of why the drugs might work," Sirota said.

"Additional studies need to be carried out to investigate this question," she said.

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