Could a Common Antidepressant Help Against COVID-19?

Despite the developments of coronavirus vaccines, the world continues to contend with the ramifications of COVID-19 and its effects on the physical and mental health of at-risk populations and the world at large. Offering treatments to alleviate the severity of COVID-related symptoms has therefore become a top priority, leading researchers to assess the effects of existing medications on patients who develop COVID-19.

As part of these efforts, researchers have begun searching for a link between antidepressants and COVID-19, hypothesizing that this type of medication could facilitate a reduction in COVID symptom severity. Following along these lines, recent studies have found that one particular antidepressant, called fluvoxamine, seems to lessen the morbidity of COVID-related symptoms among patients belonging to at-risk populations. Read on to find out more on this subject.

Antidepressants and COVID

Facing a Continuous State of Emergency

Global health institutions such as the World Health Organization continue to view COVID-19 as a developing, widespread pandemic. At present, the pandemic has taken the lives of over five million individuals, with over 258 million listed cases of infection. The incredibly infectious illness has been shown to attack the respiratory system, causing high rates of mortality. Older adults and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions are particularly at risk of developing COVID-related health complications.

Looking to Mitigate COVID’s Effects

Aiming to offer a comprehensive support system for individuals facing this condition, researchers have been examining the effects—and side effects—that readily available medications have on COVID symptoms.
The assessed medications are usually ones that have been proven to be safe and tolerable for those taking them. Such is the case with a certain type of antidepressant, called fluvoxamine. Also known as Luvox, this second-generation medication is part of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor family. It acts as a mood stabilizer by prolonging the activation period of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

As is the case with other SSRIs, fluvoxamine is considered both safe and effective, lowering symptom severity and frequency, thereby increasing the patient’s quality of life. SSRIs are generally considered to be tolerable, though many patients do find SSRI side effects, which can include weight gain and sexual dysfunction, to be hard to handle.

All things considered, though, SSRIs (fluvoxamine included) have been shown to offer safe and effective symptom alleviation. For these reasons, SSRIs are FDA-approved as a first-line treatment for both major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD).

A Possible Breakthrough in COVID Care?

A 2021 study aims to assess the possible benefits that fluvoxamine can have on individuals who have contracted COVID-19. Though the overall study is still ongoing, its data on the effects on fluvoxamine on patients with COVID-19 have already been made available.

Focusing on at-risk populations, the study has selected outpatients with early-diagnosed COVID-19, who met at least one criterion that flagged them as being particularly vulnerable to COVID’s more severe symptoms. The at-risk criteria included:

  • Diabetes.
  • Known cardiovascular disease.
  • Symptomatic lung disease, such as emphysema, or symptomatic asthma.
  • Smoking.
  • Obesity.
  • Having undergone a transplant procedure.
  • Stage IV chronic kidney disease or currently on dialysis.
  • Immunosuppression or use of corticosteroid therapy.
  • History of cancer over the last five years or undergoing current cancer treatment.
  • Aged 50 or older.
  • Unvaccinated for COVID-19.

Participants assigned to the treatment group were then given the antidepressant fluvoxamine two times a day for ten days, while those in the placebo group were given an inactive substance.

The study’s results found a significant difference between the antidepressant and placebo groups: specifically, its data concluded that fluvoxamine reduced the need for hospitalization among early-diagnosed COVID-19, at-risk outpatients. Simply put, patients with early signs of COVID who were administered fluvoxamine were significantly less likely to require additional, serious hospital care.

Solidifying this data, an earlier study also from 2021 came to a similar conclusion. Focusing instead on patients with mild cases of COVID-19, this earlier study found that fluvoxamine’s antiviral benefits can protect patients against more severe symptoms of COVID-19, such as coagulopathy (impaired blood clotting) or cytokine storm (a pro-inflammatory physical reaction).

Antidepressant Help Against COVID-19

Why Would an Antidepressant Aid Against COVID?

The above results have yet to be definitively understood, as fluvoxamine’s apparent ability to aid in protecting against COVID symptom severity have only recently come to light. That said, several hypotheses have been put forth, as explanations to the medication’s beneficial effects.

The currently leading hypothesis, and the one that initiated research into fluvoxamine as a possible allay for COVID symptoms, is the antidepressant’s proven anti-inflammatory properties. Fluvoxamine is known to reduce swelling, making it an ideal candidate for reducing the effects of a highly infectious disease that can block the patient’s airways through causing severe inflammation. As fluvoxamine has already been proven to activate a key protein (called S1R), which acts to prevent an inflammatory reaction to physical stressors, it stood to reason to test its abilities in relation to COVID.

A second mechanism that could explain fluvoxamine’s benefits in protecting against severe COVID symptoms is its effects on antiplatelet activity. As is the case with other SSRI antidepressants, fluvoxamine can prevent serotonin from being loaded onto platelets, thereby reducing the risk of thrombosis (blood clotting). Since thrombosis is a common symptom of COVID-related pneumonia, preventing it through the use of fluvoxamine has the potential to prevent COVID cases from becoming life-threatening.

Offering yet another hypothesis, a 2012 study highlights fluvoxamine’s potential as an antiviral agent. The study aligns with the above-mentioned study’s conclusion of fluvoxamine’s antiviral properties. Though this hypothesis has yet to be thoroughly researched, it offers another possible explanation to how this antidepressant is able to ward off the coronavirus’ more dangerous symptoms.

COVID’s Effects on Mental Health

The effects of COVID-19 go beyond its physical symptomatology, and have also been shown to cause detrimental mental health issues. Specifically, depression and OCD are reported to be on the rise due to the added stress introduced by the pandemic.

The FDA has recognized a number of treatments for both of these conditions, finding Deep TMS™, psychotherapy and SSRI antidepressants to offer safe and effective treatment options. Though future research is still needed to confirm the above-mentioned, initial studies’ findings on fluvoxamine, existing treatments for mental health disorders may turn out to hold the key to the battle against COVID’s physical and mental health ramifications.