University of Utah researchers studying possible COVID-19 treatment — an old antidepressant

Although people are getting vaccinated, a researcher says an effective treatment could save lives in the meantime, or help deal with vaccine-resistant variants.

A decades-old antidepressant drug may stop coronavirus from causing serious illness — and the University of Utah is enrolling patients in a study to confirm whether it works.

The drug, fluvoxamine, is an early selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor — a common type of antidepressant, similar to Prozac or Zoloft — developed in the 1980s.

But, infectious diseases professor Dr. Adam Spivak said Thursday, “there’s a lot of research that suggests it acts as a very strong anti-inflammatory.”

That’s important because serious cases of COVID-19 are likely tied to inflammation caused by out-of-control immune responses that the virus triggers, Spivak said.

For the past year, researchers have been running trials on drugs with anti-inflammatory effects, from ibuprofen to the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

“We have a lot of anti-inflammatories on the shelf, everything from Motrin and Tylenol, to ... drugs we use for specific cancers,” Spivak said. “There has been a very rapid series of trials looking at different anti-inflammatory drugs to address severe COVID.”

So far only one of those drugs, a steroid called dexamethasone, has “really worked” and been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for coronavirus treatment.

But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis in the fall completed the first trials using fluvoxamine and found none of the patients who took it required hospital care — compared to 8% of coronavirus patients who took the placebo, Spivak said.

The drug has the same cellular mechanism as hydroxychloroquine, which then-President Donald Trump touted early in the pandemic as a “miracle” cure — but later was shown to be ineffective and possibly dangerous in treating the coronavirus.

That cellular mechanism is about 20 times more powerful in fluvoxamine than in hydroxychloroquine, Spivak said.

Now the U. is working with Washington University to enroll Utah coronavirus patients in a follow-up trial. Researchers are looking for people who recently tested positive for COVID-19 and have developed symptoms within six days, who are at risk of serious illness, and who have not received a coronavirus vaccine.

Spivak acknowledged that, with rising vaccinations and declining cases, it may seem a little late in the game for an effective treatment for the coronavirus. But with the virus still spreading and mutating, he said, it’s important to be ready for a potential vaccine-resistant variant.

“People are still getting COVID, and they still will until we get enough people vaccinated,” he said.