Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York have discovered that an inexpensive, widely available cholesterol-lowering medication could turn the 2019-2020 coronavirus into something akin to the common cold.
Understanding the coronavirus
Professor Yaakov Nahmias of the Hebrew University and Dr. Benjamin tenOever of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai began researching COVID-19 over three months ago. Their goal was to determine how the virus affects the lungs; specifically, what changes it makes to the lungs in order to facilitate reproduction inside the body.
After months of research, the two scientists came to the conclusion that COVID-19 causes the buildup of fat in the lungs. In addition, they found that the virus prevents the body from properly burning carbohydrates. This discovery could shed light on why patients with high cholesterol levels, as well as elevated glucose levels, are at risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19.
Nahmias and tenOever say that their findings can adequately explain how the coronavirus replicates inside the body. According to the researchers’ data, the accumulation of fat in the lungs gives the virus a perfect environment to thrive in. The logical conclusion would be to assume that breaking down said fat could deal a blow to the virus–so the team began testing fat-burning medications.
A potential candidate
One medication the researchers tested was a common, FDA-approved drug called fenofibrate (brand name Tricor). **Clarification: Fenofibrate is not FDA-approved for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.** Fenofibrate works to lower cholesterol levels by encouraging lung cells to burn higher amounts of fat. The drug was able to prevent COVID-19 from attacking the lung cells, preventing further replication as a result. According to the researchers, the virus “almost completely disappeared” after only five days of fenofibrate treatment.
“With second-wave infections spiking in countries across the globe, these findings couldn’t come at a better time,” said Nahmias. “If our findings are borne out by clinical studies, this course of treatment could potentially downgrade COVID-19’s severity into nothing worse than a common cold.”
“The collaboration between the Nahmias and tenOever labs demonstrates the power of adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to study SARS-CoV-2 and that our findings could truly make a significant difference in reducing the global burden of COVID-19,” tenOever said.
In the absence of a vaccine, fenofibrate could be used
As it’s not known if potential COVID-19 vaccines offer protection for more than a few months, Nahmias maintains the importance of finding a drug that prevents the virus from reproducing inside the body. Current vaccine contenders simply grant an immunity to the coronavirus, which may fade over time. Plus, rolling out vaccines takes time and money, and low-income countries will likely be the last to receive one. If the cheap, widely available fenofibrate truly renders COVID-19 unable to replicate itself inside a human host, millions of lives could be saved.