The antidepressant drug fluvoxamine -- best known by the brand name Luvox -- may help prevent serious illness in COVID-19 patients who aren't yet hospitalized, a new study finds.
The study included 152 patients infected with mild-to-moderate COVID-19. Of those, 80 took fluvoxamine and 72 took a placebo for 15 days.
By the end of that time, none of the patients who took the drug had seen their infection progress to serious illness, compared with six (8.3%) of the patients who took the placebo, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
"The patients who took fluvoxamine did not develop serious breathing difficulties or require hospitalization for problems with lung function," said first author Dr. Eric Lenze, professor of psychiatry.
"Most investigational treatments for COVID-19 have been aimed at the very sickest patients, but it's also important to find therapies that prevent patients from getting sick enough to require supplemental oxygen or to have to go to the hospital. Our study suggests fluvoxamine may help fill that niche," Lenze noted in a university news release.
Fluvoxamine -- widely used to treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder -- is a type of drug called a selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). This class of drugs also includes medicines such as Prozac, Zoloft and Celexa.
But unlike other SSRIs, fluvoxamine has a strong interaction with a protein called the sigma-1 receptor, which helps regulate the body's inflammatory response.
"There are several ways this drug might work to help COVID-19 patients, but we think it most likely may be interacting with the sigma-1 receptor to reduce the production of inflammatory molecules," explained study senior author Dr. Angela Reiersen, associate professor of psychiatry.
"Past research has demonstrated that fluvoxamine can reduce inflammation in animal models of sepsis, and it may be doing something similar in our patients," she said in the release.
By reducing inflammation, fluvoxamine may prevent a hyperactive immune response in COVID-19 patients. That, in turn, may decrease their risk of serious illness and death, Reiersen said.
"Our goal is to help patients who are initially well enough to be at home and to prevent them from getting sick enough to be hospitalized," Dr. Caline Mattar, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, said in the release. "What we've seen so far suggests that fluvoxamine may be an important tool in achieving that goal."
Dr. Amesh Adalja is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. He wasn't involved in the study, but said the research is "notable not only because of its positive outcome -- we desperately need a medication that keeps COVID patients out of the hospital -- but also because of the manner in which it was conducted."
But Adalja stressed that a larger trial is needed "to see if the promising findings hold up."
The researchers said they plan to begin such a study in the next few weeks and it will include patients from across the United States.
The preliminary study was published online Nov. 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
For more on COVID-19, go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore; Washington University in St. Louis, news release, Nov. 12, 2020