From the Journals

Antidepressant may cut COVID-19–related hospitalization, mortality: TOGETHER


The antidepressant fluvoxamine (Luvox) may prevent hospitalization and death in outpatients with COVID-19, new research suggests.

Pills HconQ/ThinkStock

Results from the placebo-controlled, multisite, phase 3 TOGETHER trial showed that in COVID-19 outpatients at high risk for complications, hospitalizations were cut by 66% and deaths were reduced by 91% in those who tolerated fluvoxamine.

“Our trial has found that fluvoxamine, an inexpensive existing drug, reduces the need for advanced disease care in this high-risk population,” wrote the investigators, led by Gilmar Reis, MD, PhD, research division, Cardresearch, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The findings were published online Oct. 27 in The Lancet Global Health.

Alternative mechanisms

Fluvoxamine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), is an antidepressant commonly prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Besides its known effects on serotonin, the drug acts in other molecular pathways to dampen the production of inflammatory cytokines. Those alternative mechanisms are the ones believed to help patients with COVID-19, said coinvestigator Angela Reiersen, MD, child psychiatrist at Washington University, St. Louis.

Based on cell culture and mouse studies showing effects of the molecule’s binding to the sigma-1 receptor in the endoplasmic reticulum, Dr. Reiersen came up with the idea of testing if fluvoxamine could keep COVID-19 from progressing in newly infected patients.

Dr. Reiersen and psychiatrist Eric Lenze, MD, also from Washington University, led the phase 2 trial that initially suggested fluvoxamine’s promise as an outpatient medication. They are coinvestigators on the new phase 3 adaptive platform trial called TOGETHER, which was conducted by an international team of investigators in Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

For this latest study, researchers at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont., partnered with the research clinic Cardresearch in Brazil to recruit unvaccinated, high-risk adults within 7 days of developing flu-like symptoms from COVID-19. They analyzed 1,497 newly symptomatic COVID-19 patients at 11 clinical sites in Brazil.

Patients entered the trial between January and August 2021 and were assigned to receive 100 mg fluvoxamine or placebo pills twice a day for 10 days. Investigators monitored participants through 28 days post treatment, noting whether complications developed requiring hospitalization or more than 6 hours of emergency care.

In the placebo group, 119 of 756 patients (15.7%) worsened to this extent. In comparison, 79 of 741 (10.7%) fluvoxamine-treated patients met these primary criteria. This represented a 32% reduction in hospitalizations and emergency visits.

Additional analysis requested

As Lancet Global Health reviewed these findings from the submitted manuscript, journal reviewers requested an additional “pre-protocol analysis” that was not specified in the trial’s original protocol. The request was to examine the subgroup of patients with good adherence (74% of treated group, 82% of placebo group).

Among these three quarters of patients who took at least 80% of their doses, benefits were better.

Fluvoxamine cut serious complications in this group by 66% and reduced mortality by 91%. In the placebo group, 12 people died compared with one who received the study drug.

Based on accumulating data, Dr. Reiersen said, some experts are recommending fluvoxamine for COVID-19 patients at high risk for morbidity and mortality from complications of the infection.

However, clinicians should note that the drug can cause side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and insomnia, she added. In addition, because it prevents the body from metabolizing caffeine, patients should limit their daily intake to half of a small cup of coffee or one can of soda or one tea while taking the drug.

Previous research has shown that fluvoxamine affects the metabolism of some drugs, such as theophylline, clozapine, olanzapine, and tizanidine.

Despite huge challenges with studying generic drugs as early COVID-19 treatment, the TOGETHER trial shows it is possible to produce quality evidence during a pandemic on a shoestring budget, noted co-principal investigator Edward Mills, PhD, professor in the department of health research methods, evidence, and impact at McMaster University.

To screen more than 12,000 patients and enroll 4,000 to test nine interventions, “our total budget was less than $8 million,” Dr. Mills said. The trial was funded by Fast Grants and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation.


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