Scientists have identified a licensed drug that they say could significantly reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.
An international study, led by the University of Birmingham, Keele University, and the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Italy, has found that a drug usually used to treat abnormal levels of fatty substances in the blood could reduce infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus by up to 70%.
The findings from the study have been published in Frontiers in Pharmacology.
What is fenofibrate?
Researchers demonstrated that the drug fenofibrate, and its active form (fenofibric acid), can significantly reduce SARS-COV-2 infection in human cells in the laboratory. Fenofibrate is an oral drug approved for use by most countries in the world to treat conditions such as high cholesterol and high levels of lipids (fatty substances) in the blood.
Following this research, the team is now calling for clinical trials to test the drug in hospitalised COVID-19 patients. In addition to this, two clinical trials are also currently underway in such patients, in research being led by the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in the US and Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, infects the host through an interaction between the Spike protein on the surface of the virus and the ACE2 receptor protein on host cells. In this study, the team tested a panel of already licensed drugs – including fenofibrate – to identify candidates that disrupt ACE2 and Spike interactions. Having identified fenofibrate as a candidate, they then tested the efficacy of the drug in reducing infection in cells in the laboratory using the original strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus isolated in 2020. They found that fenofibrate reduced infection by up to 70%, adding that further unpublished data also indicates that fenofibrate is equally effective against the newer variants of SARS-CoV-2, including the Alpha and Beta variants.
Corresponding author Dr Farhat Khanim, of the University of Birmingham in the UK, explained: “The development of new, more infectious SARS-CoV-2 variants has resulted in a rapid expansion in infection rates and deaths in several countries around the world, especially the UK, US, and Europe. Whilst vaccine programmes will hopefully reduce infection rates and virus spread in the longer term, there is still an urgent need to expand our arsenal of drugs to treat SARS-CoV-2-positive patients.”
Co-corresponding author Dr Alan Richardson, of Keele University in the UK, added: “Whilst in some countries vaccination programmes are progressing at speed, vaccine uptake rates are variable and for most low-middle-income countries, significant proportions of the population are unlikely to be vaccinated until 2022. Furthermore, whilst vaccination has been shown to reduce infection rates and severity of disease, we are, as yet, unsure of the strength and duration of the response. Therapies are still urgently needed to manage COVID-19 patients who develop symptoms or require hospitalisation.”
Co-author Dr Elisa Vicenzi, of the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy, said: “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 which 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.”
First author Dr Scott Davies, also of the University of Birmingham, concluded: “We now urgently need further clinical studies to establish whether fenofibrate is a potential therapeutic agent to treat SARS-CoV-2 infection.”