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This common diabetes drug might prevent COVID-19 deaths

Published Jan 27th, 2021 7:58AM EST
Coronavirus Drugs
Image: Mongkolchon/Adobe
  • Researchers from the University of Alabama discovered that a common diabetes drug could significantly reduce the risk of COVID-19 death.
  • The scientists do not know how the metformin helps the body fight the novel coronavirus infection but speculate it’s not the drug’s antidiabetic properties at play.
  • The researchers say that it might be metformin’s anti-inflammatory and anti-thrombotic properties that are beneficial in COVID-19.

People suffering from various medical conditions are at increased risk of developing life-threatening complications after the infection with the novel coronavirus. Diabetes is one of the main risk factors in COVID-19. That’s why people suffering from the illness are advised to take all the necessary precautions to avoid contracting the virus.
Studying COVID-19 mortality in patients, researchers from the University of Alabama stumbled upon an unexpected finding. One of the common drugs to treat diabetes can reduce the risk of death in COVID-19, a finding that could help doctors save more people who have diabetes who are infected with the coronavirus.

It might be the subject of a recall right now, but metformin is one of the drugs that people with diabetes use to manage the disease. It also happens to save lives in COVID-19, according to the researchers.

Using metformin before the coronavirus infection is associated with a threefold decrease in mortality in COVID-19 patients with Type 2 diabetes, the researchers wrote.

“This beneficial effect remained, even after correcting for age, sex, race, obesity, and hypertension or chronic kidney disease and heart failure,” Dr. Anath Shalev said in a statement. Shalev is the director of the UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center and the leader of the study.

“Since similar results have now been obtained in different populations from around the world — including China, France, and a UnitedHealthcare analysis — this suggests that the observed reduction in mortality risk associated with metformin use in subjects with Type 2 diabetes and COVID-19 might be generalizable.”

It’s unclear, however, how metformin helps. The researchers only observed a statistically relevant decrease in deaths in the group of diabetes patients taking metformin before being infected. The drug’s effects may go beyond what’s expected of metformin — better blood sugar control and improvement of obesity. The authors looked at various parameters for the metformin group and found that body mass index, blood glucose, and hemoglobin A1C were not lower in the patients who survived compared to the ones who died.

“The mechanisms may involve metformin’s previously described anti-inflammatory and anti-thrombotic effects,” Shalev said. The novel coronavirus is known for harming blood vessels and favoring blood clotting. Inflammation is actually the main complication of COVID-19. When it gets out of control, inflammation can lead to severe complications that can result in death.

The researchers looked at data for 25,326 patients tested for COVID-19 between February 25nd and June 22nd last year. Of 604 patients who were found to be COVID-19 positive, 311 were African American.

The researchers found that “being African American appeared to be primarily a risk factor for contracting COVID-19, rather than for mortality,” according to Shalev. “This suggests that any racial disparity observed is likely due to exposure risk and external socioeconomic factors, including access to proper health care.”

The authors found that overall COVID-19 mortality was 11%, with 93% of deaths occurring in subjects over 50. Males and people with high blood pressure were associated with a higher risk of death. Diabetes was associated with a “dramatic” increase in mortality, with an odds ratio of 3.62. Some 67% of the COVID-19 patients who died had diabetes.

That’s how the scientists found that metformin can reduce the risk of death. “Metformin use significantly reduced the odds of dying, and the 11 percent mortality for metformin users was not only comparable to that of the general COVID-19-positive population, it was dramatically lower than the 23 percent mortality for diabetes patients not on metformin,” the UAB wrote in a press release.

Death was less likely for metformin patients, with an odds ratio of 0.33, the researchers found, compared to diabetes patients, not on metformin. The odds ratio was observed even after the researchers corrected for other covariates, age, and sex.

The authors speculate that metformin may protect against COVID-19 complications and death, but more studies are needed to determine how metformin actually protects people with diabetes.

The study is available at this link.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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