In recent studies at UC San Diego Health and elsewhere, researchers found statins—widely used cholesterol-lowering medications—are linked to a lower risk of severe COVID-19, as well as faster recovery times.
Second research has uncovered evidence that helps explains why: In short, removing cholesterol from cell membranes prevents the coronavirus from getting in.
The study findings are published in The American Journal of Cardiology and The EMBO Journal. One author is Lori Daniels, MD.
There are no Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved treatments for COVID-19, the pandemic infection caused by a novel coronavirus.
While several therapies are being tested in clinical trials, the current standard of care involves providing patients with fluids and fever-reducing medications.
To speed the search for new COVID-19 therapies, researchers are testing repurposed drugs—medicines are already known to be safe for human use because they are FDA-approved for other conditions—for their abilities to mitigate the virus.
In the research, the team focused on a molecule known as ACE2 sits like a doorknob on the outer surfaces of many human cells, where it helps regulate and lower blood pressure.
ACE2 can be affected by prescription statins and other medications used for heart disease.
But in January 2020, researchers discovered a new role for ACE2: SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, primarily uses the receptor to enter lung cells and establish respiratory infections.
In the current research, the team analyzed the electronic medical records of 170 patients with COVID-19 and 5,281 COVID-negative control patients.
Among the patients with COVID-19, 27% were actively taking statins on admission, while 21% were on an ACE inhibitor and 12% on an ARB.
The researchers found that statin use prior to hospital admission for COVID-19 was linked to a more than 50% reduction in risk of developing severe COVID-19, compared to those with COVID-19 but not taking statins.
Patients with COVID-19 who were taking statins prior to hospitalization also recovered faster than those not taking the cholesterol-lowering medication.
The findings showed that statins are not only safe but potentially protective against severe COVID-19 infection.
The team says statins may inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infection through its known anti-inflammatory effects and binding capabilities as that could potentially stop the progression of the virus.
While SARS-CoV-2 uses the ACE2 receptor to initially dock on a cell, the studies suggest that the virus also needs cholesterol (normally found in cell membranes) in order to fuse with and enter the cell.
Statins are likely beneficial in preventing or reducing the severity of SARS-CoV-2 infection because, while intended to remove cholesterol from blood vessels, they are also removing cholesterol from cell membranes. As a result, the coronavirus can’t get in.
But like all medications, statins can cause negative side effects, including digestive problems and muscle pains, and may not be an option for many people with COVID-19.
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