Decades-Old Drug May Help Protect Against Severe COVID-19 Symptoms: Study

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Reporter
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.
February 9, 2022 Updated: February 9, 2022

A drug that was approved by U.S. regulators more than 70 years ago may help protect against two major COVID-19 symptoms, according to a new study.

Disulfiram, approved to treat alcoholism, protected rodents infected with COVID-19 from lung injury in the preclinical study done by researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Certain white blood cells called neutrophils form inside some people suffering from COVID-19, damaging the lungs. No drugs have yet been found to prevent this from happening, researchers said.

Disulfiram, though, dramatically reduced the formation of neutrophil extracellular traps (NET), which cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs and sometimes lead to blood clots.

Researchers dosed the mice with disulfiram a day before and three hours after infecting them with the virus that causes COVID-19. Some 95 percent of those mice survived, compared to 40 percent not treated with the drug.

The new study and a previous one that linked disulfiram with reduced NET formation and improved survival “suggest that disulfiram could be useful in the management of pathologies involving NETs, including lung injuries, sepsis, thrombosis, and cancer,” the researchers said in the paper, which was published by The Journal of Clinical Investigation on Feb. 8.

“As we learn more about the underlying biology of these lung injuries, we may be able to specifically target the processes that are damaging the lung tissue,” Dr. Robert Schwartz, an associate professor of medicine in the gastroenterology and hepatology division at Weill Cornell Medicine, said in a statement.

“Currently there aren’t any good treatment options for COVID-related lung injury, so disulfiram appears to be worth investigating further in this regard, particularly in severe COVID-19 patients.”

Disulfiram has previously been associated in observational studies with lowering the risk of infection from SARS-CoV-2, also known as the CCP virus, which causes COVID-19.

One study of the drug in human patients with moderate COVID-19 was completed in 2021, but results haven’t yet been posted. A separate trial testing the drug against COVID-19 in humans has not yet been completed.

The new study was funded by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center and the Pershing Square Foundation, among other institutions.

Other drugs approved for different uses have shown some success against COVID-19, including ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and fluvoxamine, though U.S. health officials primarily recommend ones such as paxlovid that are specifically approved for combating the illness.