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Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
The COVID pandemic is a major challenge for healthcare providers for many reasons, leaving healthcare providers constantly looking for new ways to treat the disease that has managed to wreak global havoc.
Scientists have identified a few valuable treatments, like monoclonal antibodies and the antiviral drug remdesivir, but they are always on the hunt for more, often exploring the use of existing medications in an effort to treat the most severe cases. One such drug is fluvoxamine. Traditionally used as an antidepressant, there’s some evidence that this drug might help prevent serious disease in people who come down with COVID-19.
Fluvoxamine as a treatment for COVID-19
Fluvoxamine is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), which is commonly used to treat conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. These drugs work by reducing the breakdown of a chemical called serotonin in the brain, which is known to play an important role in mood. But the drug has also been found to play a role in quelling the immune response, which is one of the major contributors to severe COVID-19 (Sukhatme, 2021).
What the research shows
There have been a few clinical trials exploring the use of fluvoxamine as a treatment for COVID-19. In one small study performed in 2020, 152 people with early, mild cases of COVID-19 were treated with either fluvoxamine or a placebo. None of the patients who took fluvoxamine became sick enough to require hospitalization, while six people in the placebo group had to be hospitalized (Lenze, 2020).
A 2021 study of 113 people with coronavirus disease had similar results. Participants who got early treatment with fluvoxamine as soon as they were diagnosed were less likely to be hospitalized, be admitted to the ICU, or die from the disease compared to the group who did not (Seftel, 2021).
SSRIs: everything you need to know
Large clinical trial data
Another study, which examined people over 3,000 people from Brazil who caught the coronavirus and had one or more underlying risk factors for severe disease, had similar results. 11% of patients treated with fluvoxamine had to be hospitalized, while 16% of those receiving the placebo had to be hospitalized. While those numbers might not sound impressive, that’s a 30% reduction in the hospitalization rate for the fluvoxamine group (T.O.G.E.T.H.E.R. Trial, 2021). The results were so impressive that they stopped the trial early because fluvoxamine was clearly more effective than placebo.
Another, more recent study found that other similar medications may protect lung and kidney cells from being invaded by the coronavirus. Fluoxetine (Prozac; see Important Safety Information), another SSRI, has even been shown to provide protection against newer variants of the virus (Fred, 2021).
How could fluvoxamine help with COVID-19?
There are a few theories that explain why fluvoxamine might help prevent severe cases of COVID-19. Fluvoxamine binds to a receptor on our cells called sigma-1. Some research has shown that the virus uses this receptor to enter our cells, and blocking it prevents the virus from being able to spread throughout our bodies (Hashimoto, 2021). Other research seems to indicate that binding to the sigma-1 receptor helps our bodies “clean out” components that were damaged by the virus, reducing the amount of damage the virus causes and reducing the chance of severe disease (Brimson, 2021).
Fluvoxamine has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that allow it to decrease the inflammatory response in areas like the brain and lungs, so that’s another reason it might be effective against severe COVID-19 (Grieb, 2021; Sukhatme, 2021).
Allergies vs. COVID-19: how to tell the difference
Are there disadvantages to using fluvoxamine?
Fluvoxamine and other antidepressants can interact with other medications a person is taking. Also, the drug carries the risk of side effects, including appetite changes, nausea, headaches, decreased libido, sleepiness, anxiety, weight changes, and insomnia. Less common but serious side effects include bleeding, seizures, and suicidal ideation (Sohel, 2021).
While it may be a little while before the medical community reaches a consensus on whether or not to recommend this drug as a standard treatment for coronavirus, it’s an exciting prospect, in a large part because fluvoxamine is relatively inexpensive (costing around $4 for 10 days of treatment). This makes it a more promising treatment option in countries that don’t have access to widespread vaccination yet. Other treatments, like monoclonal antibodies, can cost upwards of $2,000 per dose.
There are currently multiple trials underway, and if their findings confirm previous studies, fluvoxamine may become a new standard of care.
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Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.