COVID patients on certain antidepressants less likely to die from virus

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common form of antidepressants doctors prescribe in the United States. They achieve their effect by re-balancing chemicals in the brain. Now, new research indicates SSRI use may significantly reduce the chances of dying from COVID-19.

After analyzing data from 87 U.S. healthcare centers, scientists at the University of California-San Francisco report a group of COVID-19 patients taking SSRIs were much less likely to die in comparison to another control group of COVID-19 patients. The SSRI drug fluoxetine (Prozac) appears to be especially beneficial.

While large clinical trials will help scientists reach a definitive conclusion about these drugs, study authors believe these findings strongly suggest SSRIs can help alleviate at least some of COVID-19’s nastier symptoms.

“We can’t tell if the drugs are causing these effects, but the statistical analysis is showing significant association,” says Marina Sirota, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and a member of the Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute (BCHSI) at UCSF, in a university release. “There’s power in the numbers.”

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In all, researchers analyzed a dataset including 83,584 adult patients diagnosed with COVID-19 between January and September 2020. Among that larger group, 3,401 patients had an active prescription for SSRIs. This large dataset allowed the team to compare a sub-section of the larger non-SSRI group with COVID patients continuing to take their antidepressants. Researchers carefully selected the two experimental groups to could account for various influential factors such as age, sex, race, ethnicity, other medications, and pre-existing conditions which can lead to severe COVID-19 symptoms — such as obesity and heart disease.

Still, even after accounting for all that, the results are quite striking. The study shows patients taking fluoxetine were 28 percent less likely to die over the course of their COVID-19 illness. Meanwhile, another SSRI called fluvoxamine lowered the risk of death from coronavirus by 26 percent. Overall, the entire group of SSRI patients were eight percent less likely to die from a COVID infection.

“The results are encouraging,” concludes Tomiko Oskotsky, MD, a research scientist in Sirota’s lab at BCHSI. “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.”

The findings appear in the journal JAMA Network Open.

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