The common antidepressant fluoxetine, that is sold under the brand name Prozac, was recently found to lower the death risk of patients suffering severe COVID-19 infection.

The Study

A large study utilizing data from 83,584 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 from 87 health care centers in the U.S. found that the administration of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors had an effect on the mortality of patients down with severe COVID-19.

The study, which was published in the JAMA Network Open Journal Monday, indicated that 3,401 patients who were given antidepressants had reduced mortality compared to the control group of 6,802 patients who did not receive the medication.

Of the 3,401 patients prescribed with SSRIs, 470 received fluoxetine only and about 9.8% or 46 of them died. This is significantly lower compared to the over 13% or more than 930 patients who died out of the 7,050 participants in the untreated control group.

Other antidepressants were also used in the study, including fluvoxamine, and they yielded higher percentages compared to that of fluoxetine but lower than the rates from the untreated control group.

Fluvoxamine was also found to lower the risk of a SARS-CoV-2 patient ending up in a hospital, based on a recent trial in Brazil. It was examined by researchers because it was being considered as a cheaper alternative to Merck & Co.’s antiviral for COVID-19, according to Bloomberg.

The Takeaway

Antidepressants such as fluoxetine and fluvoxamine have been used for the treatment of mental health conditions for about 30 years now. Their ability to increase serotonin levels in the brain is what makes them effective in treating mental issues.

Interestingly, these drugs can also act as anti-inflammatory agents that could help ease symptoms in COVID-19 patients. Dr. Yogesh Shah at Broadlawns Medical Center told KCCI News that the findings of the new study are very “promising.”

Shash said it’s a good sign that some of the antidepressants used in the study could also be used in treating SARS-CoV-2 patients. However, more research is needed to confirm the findings.

“It looks promising. As I mentioned, I would not go out and give prescription to patients, but it looks promising,“ he said before noting that the antidepressants should also not be viewed as vaccine replacements.

But for study co-author Tomiko Oskotsky, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, the results are “encouraging” especially to scientists and medical experts who are looking for other solutions amid the pandemic.

“It's important to find as many options as possible for treating any condition. A particular drug or treatment may not work or be well tolerated by everyone. Data from electronic medical records allow us to quickly look into existing drugs that could be repurposed for treating COVID-19 or other conditions,” Oskotsky was quoted as saying by MedPage Today.