The over-the-counter heartburn medication Pepcid might be one of the oddest answers to the COVID-19 question, with a preliminary Hartford Hospital research study showing benefit for patients with the virus.

Dr. Raymond McKay, a cardiologist at the Hartford HealthCare (HHC) Heart & Vascular Institute, is the primary investigator of the “Famotidine (Pepcid) Study,” which recently released data based on research involving 900 hospitalized HHC patients.

“There are many, many medications currently being tested to see if they have any therapeutic benefit in patients infected with COVID-19. Surprisingly, one of the most interesting drugs is Pepcid,” Dr. McKay said. “Researchers became interested in Pepcid following a recent report out of New York City and Columbia University suggesting that it was associated with a lower in hospital mortality in their COVID population.

“Because of that report, we decided to look at what impact Pepcid may have had in patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Hartford HealthCare.”

They found that 83 of the approximately 900 HHC patients were treated with Pepcid at some time during their hospitalization. In those, the researchers pinpointed two results Dr. McKay called “basic” and “surprising.”

The findings:

  • Patients taking Pepcid were 45 percent less likely to die in the hospital and less likely to have combined adverse outcomes leading to death. The patients were also 48 percent less likely to need help breathing from a ventilator.
  • Pepcid use led to lower levels of certain blood tests associated with poorer outcomes from COVID-19.

The reason for the beneficial reaction, Dr. McKay said, is still largely theoretical. Researchers have ruled out theories that Pepcid has a direct antiviral effect or hinders protein binding and, therefore, interferes with reproduction of the virus.

“Current thoughts are that it may lessen the hyperimmune inflammatory response by blocking the effects of pathological histamine release from mast cells by binding to the histamine H2 receptor,” he said.

He also stressed that the results from his study should be considered preliminary.

“We’re obviously excited about our results and pleased they corroborated earlier reports, but I need to emphasize that neither our study nor any previous study has shown a definitive benefit of Pepcid in the COVID-19 population,” Dr. McKay said.

The HHC investigation, he said, is called a “retrospective, observational study” and scientists agree the results could happen by chance.

For more information on the Hartford HealthCare Heart & Vascular Institute, click here.

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