Common cholesterol drug may reduce COVID-19 severity, study finds

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Coronavirus patients taking statins prior to hospitalization substantially reduced their odds of in-hospital death and severe COVID-19, researchers found, confirming earlier findings. Statin drugs are frequently used to lower blood cholesterol levels and prevent cardiovascular disease.

A team of scientists from University of California San Diego School of Medicine published findings in PLOS ONE last week, analyzing anonymized records on over 10,500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients admitted across 104 U.S. hospitals between January-September 2020 and enrolled in the American Heart Association’s COVID-19 Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) Registry.

At the start of the pandemic, researchers speculated statins could act against COVID-19 through their “known anti-inflammatory effects and binding capabilities, which could potentially stop progression of the virus,” Lori Daniels, MD, lead study author, professor and director of the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at UC San Diego Health, wrote in a news release. Statins upregulate the ACE-2 receptor to convert angiotensin and control blood pressure, however ACE-2 is also a doorway for the virus causing COVID-19. Medications for cholesterol and high blood pressure help stabilize underlying diseases, and likely boost patients’ odds of recovering from COVID-19 disease, study authors said.

Patients were 66 years old on average, and most patients (71%) had high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or both. Over 80% of all patients taking statins were also taking at least one drug to treat high blood pressure, and patients taking either class of medication or both were typically older, female and had a number of health issues.

Results indicated patients taking a statin alone saw a 46% lower odds of death, and about 25% lower risk of developing severe COVID, versus patients on neither class of medication. Patients taking both a statin and anti-hypertensive dropped risk of death by 40%.

“As with any observational study, we cannot say for certain that the associations we describe between statin use and reduced severity of COVID-19 infection are definitely due to the statins themselves; however, we can now say with very strong evidence that they may play a role in substantially lowering a patient’s risk of death from COVID-19,” Daniels said. “We hope that our research findings are an incentive for patients to continue with their medication.”

Use of an anti-hypertensive drug alone was linked to a “smaller albeit still substantial 27% lower odds [of death],” the team found. Of the total 10,540 hospitalized patients, 21% died, 39% had a severe outcome, nearly one-third were sent to the ICU and 19% needed mechanical ventilation.

Daniels noted that most benefits were seen among patients with a history of cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, linked to a 32% lower risk of death.

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