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People on antidepressants are less likely to die from COVID-19

A new study led by the University of California, San Francisco has found that COVID-19 patients taking a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) were significantly less likely to die than those from a control group who were not taking such drugs.

A large analysis of health records of 83,584 adult patients diagnosed with COVID-19 between January and September, 2020 from 87 health care centers around the United States adds to the growing evidence that antidepressants have beneficial effects against severe COVID-19 symptoms.

By analyzing the health outcomes of the 3,401 patients who followed an SSRI treatment while hospitalized with COVID-19 and comparing it with data on the rest of the patients, the scientists found that the patients taking an antidepressant called fluoxetine were 28 percent less likely to die, those taking fluvoxamine were 26 percent less likely to die, and those taking any kind of SSRI antidepressant were 8 percent less likely to die. 

Due to the large size of the dataset, which allowed researchers to tease out the effects of age, sex, race, ethnicity, or comorbidities such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease associated with severe COVID-19, the findings are quite compelling.

“We can’t tell if the drugs are causing these effects, but the statistical analysis is showing significant association,” said study lead author Marina Sirota, an associate professor of Pediatrics and a member of the Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute (BCHSI) at UC San Francisco. “There’s power in the numbers.” 

Although the benefits of antidepressants in treating COVID-19 are smaller than those found in recent clinical trials of antivirals developed by Merck and Pfizer, more treatment options are needed in order to stop the pandemic.

“The results are encouraging,” said Tomiko Oskotsky, a researcher in Professor Sirota’s lab at BCHSI. “It’s important to find as many options as possible for treating any condition. A particular drug or treatment may not work or be well tolerated by everyone. Data from electronic medical records allow us to quickly look into existing drugs that could be repurposed for treating COVID-19 or other conditions.” 

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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