Speed Reads

Solving COVID

Antidepressant used to treat OCD shows promise as COVID-19 early treatment

The U.S. is now vaccinating more than 2 million adults a day against COVID-19, but "we know that vaccines are not going to reach everybody across the entire planet in the next couple of weeks," National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins told Sharyn Alfonsi on Sunday's 60 Minutes. "People are going to continue to get sick in the meantime," and "we need treatments for those people."

Specifically, Collins said, "a big need right now is for a drug that you can take by mouth that you could be offered as soon as you had a positive test and that would reduce the likelihood that that virus is going to make you very sick. And we have some very good clues there," one of them being the generic antidepressant fluvoxamine, developed 40 years ago and used most commonly to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

To explain how "a pill that costs 60 cents" became "a dark horse to treat COVID," 60 Minutes visited a race track in California, where Dr. David Seftel, working off a tip he received hours earlier, decided to offer his jockeys and other staff fluvoxamine to stem a COVID-19 growing outbreak at the track. "Sixty-five patients elected to take fluvoxamine; 49 declined," he told Alfonsi, and "12.5 percent of all those who refused fluvoxamine ended up hospitalized and one died. In the group that did take fluvoxamine, none of them were hospitalized."

Seftel had heard about fluvoxamine from Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, who was funding a trial by Dr. Eric Lenze, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, who in turn was tipped off by his colleague Dr. Angela Reiersen. In a small, methodologically sound trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in November, Lenze reported that none of the 80 of his 152 patients who took fluvoxamine after testing positive for COVID-19 deteriorated, versus 8 percent of the placebo-taking control group.

"So the results were really pretty incredible," Lenze told 60 Minutes. But "I have to be a scientist about this. We've tested it in one study. But — in my view, it needs to be confirmed in a larger study." That larger national study will report results starting next month. Collins told Alfonsi he regretted that last spring's "hydroxychloroquine debacle" sort of derailed the search for repurposed therapeutics, "but let me say, repurposing drugs is only going to work if you're kind of lucky." Peter Weber