Since the onset of the pandemic, scientists have been searching for existing, available medications that might be repurposed to treat COVID-19.
Laboratory studies and observations in patients suggested that medications used to treat depression—especially so-called serotonergic antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and fluvoxamine (Luvox)—might have antiviral properties and lessen the severity of disease.
- A large analysis of patient data counters earlier research suggesting that medications used to treat depression may lessen the severity of COVID-19
- The findings highlight the importance of rigorous studies to test treatments that may initially appear promising
Using a patient data registry from the Mass General Brigham health care system, the McLean researchers reviewed de-identified records of 500 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who were receiving antidepressants at the time of hospital admission, and compared them against two other patient groups, each comprising more than 500 hospitalized individuals with COVID-19 who were not receiving antidepressants.
The data analysis adjusted for patients’ demographic features (such as age, gender, and race/ethnicity), co-occurring medical conditions, and a measure estimating overall level of health.
The McLean analysis revealed that antidepressants had no effect on preventing the need for a breathing tube or on preventing death, regardless of whether the investigators assessed patients receiving all types of antidepressants or subgroups of patients receiving specific types of antidepressants.
To further examine why their study generated conflicting results from some of the previous research, the McLean investigators examined three other recent studies of hospitalized patients with COVID-19, one that reported a positive effect of antidepressants and two that reported weak or negative results.
Although no single factor explained the differences in the findings, all of the studies were vulnerable to various limitations.