Ever since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, scientists have worked tirelessly to innovate and find the antidote to the virus which has infected millions and tragically killed hundreds of thousands. Such unprecedented times have led researchers to reconsider everything they already know and take intellectual risks.
One innovator whose experimental hypothesis may save many is Angela Reiersen, a child psychiatrist from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. When she fell ill with COVID-19 in March 2020, Reiersen thought back to a study she had read about the effects of the lack of the sigma-1 receptor in mice and how the lack of this receptor protein led to massive inflammation and overproduction of cytokines. Cytokines are a part of the inflammatory response that occurs when pathogens sneak past the barrier defenses of the innate immune system and permeate cells. Upon entry of a pathogen, mast cells secrete histamines and macrophages secrete these cytokines. These cytokines attract neutrophils which then digest and kill the pathogens and other cell debris. Although cytokines are crucial to a functioning immune system, overproduction of cytokines can be extremely dangerous as it can lead to septic shock, in which the immune system becomes extremely overactive. This has become the cause of death for many COVID-19 patients.
As a psychiatrist, Reiersen worked regularly with SSRIS, or selective serotonin uptake inhibitors, in the treatment of conditions like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. SSRIs help the human brain by increasing the level of serotonin available between nerve cells, but they also activate the S1R in the Endoplasmic Reticulum. Reiersen wondered, if the lack of the S1R causes fatal levels of inflammation, can we prevent extreme inflammation from COVID-19 through the use of SSRIs?
There have been multiple studies performed to test this line of reasoning, both including and independent of Reiersen. The most notable study was performed as part of TOGETHER, an international organization seeking to test possible unorthodox treatments for COVID-19. The trial was a collaboration between researchers from McMaster University of Canada and Cardresearch, a research clinic located in Brazil. The team in Brazil located 1,497 unvaccinated adults who were deemed “high risk” for COVID complications in their first week of showing symptoms of COVID. Conducted at 11 different research sites in Brazil from January to August, the study provided participants with a 10 days supply of either 100 milligrams of fluvoxamine, an SSRI, or a placebo pill. The researchers monitored the participants for 28 days after, as well.
In the end, 15.7% of participants who were given a placebo pill ended up having major complications from COVID-19, compared to 10.1% of participants who were given fluvoxamine. The gap may seem slight, but this is because not all patients took their full dosage due to gastrointestinal complaints. However, out of patients who completed their course of medication, 66% were safe from any complications and the mortality rate was cut by 91%!
Thanks to the research of Reiersen and many others, fluvoxamine is now considered a solid treatment plan for COVID-19 infections, especially in high risk individuals. As COVID-19 continues to infect millions around the world, who knows what new scientific breakthroughs will be made?