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Over-the-Counter Acid Suppressant Could Be Secretly Helping People Survive COVID-19

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 23 Aug 2021
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An over-the-counter acid reflux medication might hamper some of the most deadly effects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to researchers.

A review of the medical records of COVID-19 survivors by researchers from the School of Data Science at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA, USA) has revealed that a significant number suffered from chronic heartburn and were taking an inexpensive drug called famotidine, the key ingredient in Pepcid. Wealthier patients tended to take the more costly drug omeprazole, found in Prilosec.

Typically, to find out whether a drug is effective in treating a particular medical condition, scientists develop prospective clinical trials. But this method is expensive and can take years. When faced with a global pandemic, it’s helpful to explore other options. In order to understand whether the over-the-counter acid suppressant was helping people survive COVID-19, an international team of researchers analyzed information from a database that holds the medical records of millions of COVID-19 patients living in 30 different countries. The team winnowed that number down to around 22,000 people, the largest sample size for a study on famotidine and the disease to date.

The team’s analysis showed that the data supported findings from other smaller-scale studies. When delivered at high doses (the equivalent of about 10 Pepcid tablets), famotidine appears to improve the odds of survival for COVID-19 patients, especially when it is combined with aspirin. It also seems to hinder the severity of disease progression, making patients less likely to reach the point where they require intubation or a ventilator. The team’s theory is that famotidine suppresses cytokine storm, which is a potentially fatal amplification of an immune response in COVID-19 patients. Although it was developed with a specific purpose in mind - blocking the histamine receptors that help produce acid in your stomach - famotidine, like all other medications, can cause side effects. The researchers believe that interfering with cytokine storms might be one of them.

But the team’s findings are far from conclusive. Other studies have offered conflicting pictures of what famotidine can do for COVID-19 patients: Some have found that it has a neutral effect and one has even suggested that it might be detrimental. Still, with its unique focus on combining famotidine with aspirin and its impressively large sample size, the team’s study has shed further light on an inexpensive and safe potential treatment that would be easy for doctors to prescribe. In the midst of an international health crisis, the study has also laid important groundwork for further research.

“It may well be a case of famotidine having a beneficial off-target effect,” said UVA senior scientist Cameron Mura. We generally think of side effects as a bad thing, but in some cases, they can be harnessed to treat other conditions. In the future, it’s possible that famotidine could be re-purposed in this way.

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