Not just for cholesterol: Statins may significantly reduce risk of death from COVID-19

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Statins, a common medication for lowering cholesterol, may be saving lives among patients with COVID-19. A new study reveals hospitalized coronavirus patients who take statins are much less likely to die from the illness.

Statins typically help people to reduce high cholesterol levels by blocking liver enzymes which produce these waxy lipids. Researchers note statins are one of the most common medications people with high cholesterol take, with about 93 percent of all patients trying to lower their cholesterol taking statins.

The new report finds, out of more than 10,000 people hospitalized for COVID-19, statin drugs lowered the risk of dying in-hospital by 41 percent.

“When faced with this virus at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of speculation surrounding certain medications that affect the body’s ACE2 receptor, including statins, and whether they may influence COVID-19 risk,” says Lori Daniels, MD, lead study author and director of the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at UC San Diego Health, in a university release. “At the time, we thought that statins may inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infection through their known anti-inflammatory effects and binding capabilities, which could potentially stop progression of the virus.”

Common drugs may help beat the pandemic

Researchers applied their original findings about statins to a group of 10,541 patients with COVID during a nine-month period between January and September 2020.

“From this data, we performed more advanced analyses as we attempted to control for coexisting medical conditions, socioeconomic status and hospital factors,” Daniels reports. “In doing so, we confirmed our prior findings that statins are associated with a reduced risk of death from COVID-19 among patients hospitalized for COVID-19.”

Results show patients taking statins for medical reasons, such as having a history of cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, see the greatest benefits of this unlikely COVID defense. Moreover, study authors report the use of either statins or other anti-hypertension medications contribute to lowering the risk of death from COVID by 32 percent among patients with heart disease or hypertension.

The UC San Diego team also matched their findings against other coronavirus patients who did not take these drugs.

“We matched each patient to one or more similar patients, using hospital site, month of admission, age, race, ethnicity, gender, and a list of pre-existing conditions, in order to make the two groups as comparable as possible” explains Karen Messer, PhD, a professor of biostatistics at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Why do statins help COVID patients so much?

Researchers believe the ACE2 receptor, the main target of statin medications, plays a major role in this benefit. Scientists discovered last year that the SARS-CoV-2 virus also targets this receptor when it attacks human lung cells. The new study finds statins and other hypertension drugs help to stabilize underlying diseases in the patients who take them. This, researchers say, makes it more likely that people during the current crisis recover from COVID-19.

“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 concludes. “We hope that our research findings are an incentive for patients to continue with their medication.”

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.