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Study: Cholesterol Drug May Reduce COVID-19 Infection by 70%

Scientist extracts liquid in COVID-19 lab

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Key Takeaways

  • New findings indicate that an existing drug may reduce COVID-19 infection by up to 70%.
  • The drug works by inhibiting the virus from binding with human cells.
  • Researchers are now testing how well fenofibrate works against COVID-19 in clinical trials.

In a preliminary study, researchers found that a drug used to treat cholesterol may reduce COVID-19 infection by as much as 70%.

Scientists tested whether various drugs that are already on the market for other uses may reduce COVID-19 infection. They found that fenofibrate, a licensed drug typically used to lower abnormal levels of fatty substances in the blood, appears to be effective at inhibiting COVID-19 in a laboratory.

This study is another step forward in the quest to find readily available drugs that could be used as therapeutic treatments for COVID-19.

“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,” Elisa Vicenzi, PhD, co-author of the study and a group leader of the viral pathogens and biosafety unit at the Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy, said in a press statement.

She added that the drug would benefit low-middle income countries and individuals who may not have access to vaccinations yet.

Fenofibrate

Fenofibrate is in a class of drugs called fibrates, which break down fatty substances in arteries to reduce the risk of heart disease, chest pain, strokes and heart attacks. It works by speeding up the natural processes to remove cholesterol from the body.

Fenofibrate was approved by the FDA in the United States in 2004 and is available many other countries.

How Fenofibrate Works Against COVID-19

The COVID-19 virus infects human cells partly due to the signature crown-like spike protein on its exterior. Like a lock and key, the spike protein can bind to enzymes that line human airway cells, called ACE2 receptors. Once the spike protein latches onto an ACE2 receptor, the virus can invade the cell.

For this study, researchers created a system to measure how certain available drugs could alter a process called dimerization, which affects how well the virus can bind to the ACE2 receptor. They found that fenofibrate and fenofibric acid are the most likely to be effective as an antiviral agent.

Fenofibrate also appeared to destabilize the area where the spike protein attaches to ACE2, interrupting the binding process. The study indicated that cells treated with the drug were less likely to be infected.

Despite these findings, the authors acknowledged that further clinical studies are necessary to determined whether fenofibrate is effective in treating COVID-19.

Alejandro Chavez, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University, who is not associated with the study, tells Verywell via email that the study results are preliminary. More research must be done to see if, for instance, the drug will be toxic when administered to humans at the level necessary to be effective against the COVID-19 virus, he explains.

Chavez adds that the laboratory tests generated data by mostly using a single cell line, similar to a previous study that claimed chloroquine—an antimalarial drug—could be effective in treating COVID-19. It had "failed to pan out in multiple clinical trials," he says.

Other Therapeutic Treatments for the COVID-19 Virus 

Therapeutic treatments may be a necessary tool for immunocompromised individuals and people who have yet to gain vaccine access.

Remdesivir is currently the only FDA-approved drug for COVID-19 and it can only be prescribed to hospitalized patients.

Several other drugs that are on the market are now being tested to see if they are safe and effective against COVID-19. These include antiviral drugs like favipiravir and merimepodib. Some anti-inflammatory drugs, like the corticosteroid dexamethasone, may also work to reduce organ dysfunction and lung injury to lower the risk of death and organ failure for people with severe COVID-19.

Additionally, new COVID-19-specific antiviral drugs are being developed. Pfizer is developing an oral pill which acts as a protease inhibitor—a mechanism to reduce how well the virus is able to infect human cells. If clinical trials are successful, the pill could be taken at home to keep an infected person from becoming seriously ill.

Licensed drugs like fenofibrate have already been tested and deemed safe for use in humans, which may be more quickly approved for use as a COVID-19 treatment.

“If a drug that is already licensed is found to be able to treat a disease like COVID-19, this can speed its translation into patients,” Chavez says.

What This Means for Patients

Two clinical trials for fenofibrate are currently registered: one at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and one on Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Fenofibrate is available as a “generic” drug, which means that if proven effective, it may be relatively affordable and could benefit low- and middle-income countries, the study authors said.

Scientists don’t yet know when and how the drug can be optimally administered. But the authors said it may be given to symptomatic infected individuals with mild disease as a way to prevent them from getting seriously ill.

“It is too early to suggest that fenofibrate might be useful for treating individuals let alone speculating when they would be optimally given,” Chavez says. “In the case of other inhibitors in clinical trials, the data seems to suggest the earlier that we treat patients, the better the outcomes.”

What This Means For You

Do not take fenofibrate or other drugs that are not yet authorized for use for COVID-19 as a preventative measure or treatment. Scientists are not yet sure what the effects of the drug will be until it has undergone clinical trials.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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