BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — A common medication for managing cholesterol and fatty substances in the blood may be the secret weapon that’s keeping many people healthy during the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers from the University of Birmingham have discovered that fenofibrate can reduce the severity and symptoms of infections due to COVID-19 by up to 70 percent.
The study, involving scientists from Keele University in the U.K. and the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Italy, reveals that the drug significantly lowers SARS-CoV-2 infection in lab tests using human cells. Specifically, researchers find that fenofibrate and its active form (fenofibric acid) disrupts the virus’s ability to grab on to the ACE2 receptors of human cells.
SARS-CoV-2 typically uses its spike protein to enter and infect cells, hijacking them, and forcing them to create more of the virus. The international team says when fenofibrate is present in the body, it blocks this pathway of infection by a staggering 70 percent.
Why do people take fenofibrate?
Fenofibrate is a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in patients battling high cholesterol. The drug typically comes in pill form and also helps with triglyceride levels and lowers the amount of fatty lipids in the blood stream. Additionally, fenofibrate can help improve levels of HDL “good” cholesterol, lowering the chance of developing heart disease.
Importantly, researchers add that standard doses which patients normally take to treat cholesterol problems are enough to protect against COVID. In this study, the team tested the drug against the alpha and beta variants of SARS-CoV-2 and are now looking how effective fenofibrate is against the delta variant.
Finding new COVID hope in existing prescription drugs
The findings are the culmination of a project that examined a panel of already licensed drugs to see if any might help fight off COVID-19. Scientists believed each drug might be able to disrupt the interaction between the COVID spike and the ACE2 receptor.
“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, US and Europe. 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,” says corresponding author Dr. Farhat Khanim in a university release.
“Our data indicates that fenofibrate may have the potential to reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and also virus spread. 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 – especially in low-middle income countries and in those individuals for whom vaccines are not recommended or suitable such as children, those with hyper-immune disorders and those using immune-suppressants,” concludes co-author Dr. Elisa Vicenzi from the San Raffaele Scientific Institute.
The findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology.