A drug used to treat abnormal levels of fatty substances in the blood might have a dual purpose when it comes to fighting off COVID-19 infections.
A research team from the UK and Italy says lab studies show that a cholesterol drug can reduce coronavirus infection by up to 70%. The team is now calling for additional clinical trials among patients hospitalized with the coronavirus.
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The researchers demonstrated that fenofibrate and fenofibric acid significantly reduced coronavirus infection in human cells, according to findings published in the Frontiers in Pharmacology journal.
"Our data indicates that fenofibrate may have the potential to reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and also virus spread," co-author Dr. Elisa Vicenzi, of the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, said in a statement. "Given that fenofibrate is an oral drug which is very cheap and available worldwide, together with its extensive history of clinical use and its good safety profile, our data has global implications."
The study indicates that infection was reduced by using a standard clinical dose of the drug, which is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and and the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Researchers say repurposing a drug offers an expedited and attractive alternative to treating infection while new drugs are being developed and tested.
The drug blocks the virus from binding to human cells, according to researchers, which in turn reduces or relieves symptoms in patients with an active infection. Additionally, it reduces transmission of the virus to uninfected individuals.
Evidence also indicates that fenofibrate is equally effective in treating infection from the alpha and beta variants. The team is still determining whether the treatment is also effective in reducing infection caused by the delta variant, which is spreading across the globe.
"The development of new more infectious SARS-CoV-2 variants has resulted in a rapid expansion in infection rates and deaths in several countries around the world, especially the UK, U.S. and Europe," co-author Dr. Farhat Khanim, of the University of Birmingham in the UK, said in a statement. "Whilst vaccine programs will hopefully reduce infection rates and virus spread in the longer term, there is still an urgent need to expand our arsenal of drugs to treat SARS-CoV-2-positive patients."
Researchers say the drug could be especially useful as treatment for COVID patients who cannot be vaccinated and develop symptoms, such as young children and those with hyperimmune disorders. Vaccine programs reduce infection rates and virus spread in the long run, but researchers say there is an urgent need to expand the arsenal of drugs used to treat patients today.
"Whilst vaccination has been shown to reduce infection rates and severity of disease, we are as yet unsure of the strength and duration of the response," co-author Dr. Alan Richardson, of Keele University in the UK, said in a statement. "Therapies are still urgently needed to manage COVID-19 patients who develop symptoms."
Given the current acceleration in infection and death rates observed in several countries, the research team is strongly advocating for clinical trials of fenofibrate in patients hospitalized with the coronavirus.
If proven effective, fenofibrate is available as a generic drug and is relatively cheap, making it accessible for use in all clinical settings, especially those in low and middle-income countries.