A widely available drug used to treat alcoholism has potential as a COVID-19 treatment, researchers say.
The investigators found that people taking disulfiram (Antabuse) for alcoholism had a lower risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 and were less likely to die from COVID-19 if infected than those not taking the drug.
The study was observational, so it doesn't establish a cause-and-effect link between disulfiram and COVID infection and outcomes. However, the results are encouraging enough to warrant further study and clinical testing, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital.
"This is a great candidate for a repurposed drug. It could easily be made available worldwide if we can prove it has a positive effect on patients with COVID-19," said Chris Sander, a professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from more than 944,000 U.S. veterans who had at least one SARS-CoV-2 test between February 2020 and February 2021, including more than 2,200 who had been prescribed disulfiram for alcoholism.
The study found that those taking disulfiram had a 34% lower rate of SARS-CoV-2 infection than those who weren't taking the drug. None of the infected veterans who were taking disulfiram died, compared with 3% of infected veterans who weren't taking the drug.
The findings were recently published online in the journal PLOS ONE.
"There's evidence that disulfiram not only reduces the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but it may actually reduce the number of deaths," Sander said in a Harvard news release.
It's not clear how the drug may combat SARS-CoV-2, but the researchers suggested it may interfere with an enzyme the virus needs to replicate. It's also possible that disulfiram may reduce the risk of severe COVID-19 by inhibiting a protein involved in hyperinflammation.
A small, randomized phase 2 clinical trial of disulfiram in patients with moderate COVID-19 is nearing completion, and another is underway. Sander and colleagues hope their study will lead to large international phase 3 trials of the drug.
If disulfiram proves to be effective, it could be added to the growing number of options to fight COVID-19, the researchers said.
They noted that disulfiram has been prescribed for more than 60 years as a treatment for alcoholism, and that it's safe, inexpensive, familiar to physicians, and widely used in many countries.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines COVID-19 treatments.
SOURCE: Harvard Medical School, news release, Nov. 17, 2021