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In wealthy nations, vaccination programs have been turning the tide against COVID-19. However, many low and middle income countries still have very limited access to vaccines.

“Identifying inexpensive, widely available, and effective therapies against COVID-19 is therefore of great importance, and repurposing existing medications that are widely available and have well-understood safety profiles is of particular interest,” says Edward Mills, Ph.D., a health researcher at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

COVID-19: Antidepressant cuts risk of hospitalization, death by 32%

Doctors have therefore given a cautious welcome to the news that, at a cost of around $4, a 10-day course of an existing drug can significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death for outpatients at high risk of severe COVID-19.

The drug, an SSRI antidepressant called fluvoxamine, has been in use for decades to treat depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also has an established safety record in these conditions.

The news came from a clinical trial in Brazil, which found that patients receiving the drug early in the course of the infection had a 32% reduced risk of hospitalization compared with those receiving a placebo.

The absolute reduction in risk was a more modest 5%. However, the researchers say this compares favorably with the benefits of more expensive outpatient treatments such as monoclonal antibodies.

Dr. Mills was co-principal investigator of the fluvoxamine study, which was part of the ongoing TOGETHER trial of repurposed treatments for COVID-19.