A cheap antidepressant reduced the need for hospitalisation among high-risk adults with COVID-19 in a study hunting for existing drugs that could be repurposed to treat coronavirus.
Researchers tested the pill used for depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder because it was known to reduce inflammation and looked promising in smaller studies.
They've shared the results with the US National Institutes of Health, which publishes treatment guidelines, and they hope for a World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation.
"If WHO recommends this, you will see it widely taken up," study co-author Dr. Edward Mills of McMaster University in Canada, said.
He added that many poor nations have the drug readily available.
"We hope it will lead to a lot of lives saved," he said.
What is this antidepressant about?
The pill - called fluvoxamine - would cost $4 (€3.45) for a course of treatment for COVID-19.
By comparison, antibody IV treatments cost about $2,000 (€1,725) and Merck's experimental antiviral pill for COVID-19 is about $700 (€603) per course.
Some experts predict various treatments will eventually be used in combination to fight coronavirus.
Researchers tested the antidepressant in nearly 1,500 Brazilians recently infected with coronavirus who were at risk of severe illness because of other health problems, such as diabetes.
About half took the antidepressant at home for 10 days, the rest got dummy pills. They were tracked for four weeks to see who landed in the hospital or spent extended time in an emergency room when hospitals were full.
In the group that took the drug, 11 per cent needed hospitalisation or an extended ER stay, compared to 16 per cent of those on dummy pills.
The results, published on Wednesday in the Lancet Global Health journal, were so strong that independent experts monitoring the study recommended stopping it early because the results were clear.
Other existing drugs tested
Questions remain about the best dosing, whether lower risk patients might also benefit and whether the pill should be combined with other treatments.
The larger project looked at eight existing drugs to see if they could work against the pandemic virus.
The project is still testing a hepatitis drug, but all the others — including metformin, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin — haven't panned out.
The cheap generic pill and Merck's COVID-19 pill work in different ways and "may be complementary," said Dr Paul Sax of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study.
Earlier this month, Merck asked regulators in the US and Europe to authorise its antiviral pill.