High cholesterol drug could reduce SARS-CoV-2 infection by 70%

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A common medication prescribed for managing cholesterol and fatty substances in the blood may also have unintended antiviral properties, protecting patients from coronavirus infections. Experiments on human cells in the lab by researchers suggest that the drug, known as fenofibrate, could reduce severity and symptoms of infection due to COVID-19 by up to 70%, as well as virus spread.

SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, infects humans using a so-called “spike” protein that attaches itself to ACE2 receptors on the surface of cells. Once it hooks, the virus hijacks the cell for its own purposes, commandeering the cell’s machinery to produce more viral particles.

But in the presence of fenofibrate and the drug’s active compound (fenofibric acid), this infectious pathway is disrupted. Of note is that this disruption occurred at standard doses which patients normally take in order to treat high cholesterol problems. Since Fenofibrate is a drug already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, its conversion into a COVID treatment should face no safety barrier.

The researchers didn’t investigate fenofibrate’s antiviral properties by accident. The findings are the culmination of a project that looked at hundreds of already licensed drugs to see if their chemical makeup could somehow disrupt the interaction between the coronavirus spike and the ACE2 receptor. Fenofibrate eventually turned up on the shortlist and was put to the test.

The project involved scientists from the University of Birmingham and Keele University in the U.K. and the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Italy.

“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 that 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,” co-author Dr. Elisa Vicenzi from the San Raffaele Scientific Institute said in a statement.

Although vaccine coverage is fairly widespread, there is still an urgent need for new drugs that are effective in treating SARS-CoV-2-positive patients. Fenofibrate has been tested on human cells exposed to the alpha and beta variants. Research is ongoing into its efficacy against the delta variant.

The researchers are calling for clinical trials to test the drug in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, to be carried out in addition to two clinical trials currently underway in such patients in research led by the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in the US and Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

The findings appeared in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology.

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