A £15 blood-thinning drug could help Covid patients and prevent lung damage, a study suggested today.
Researchers based in the UK and Australia found heparin improved oxygen levels of hospitalised patients by 70 per cent.
The drug is unique because of its combination of anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-coagulant effects, experts said.
Heparin — which is found in drugs such as Lovenox — is already used in hospitals to treat infected Brits suffering clots. It is usually injected but doctors found it was safe and effective for Covid patients when inhaled.
Experts believe the drug works by preventing the virus multiplying in the lungs, while its anti-inflammatory properties stop the immune system overreacting.
Covid can be deadly because it has the potential to damage the lungs, which blocks the flow of oxygen around the body to major organs. Severely ill patients have also been found to suffer blood clots in the lungs.
Doctors said the drug could be used in poorer countries where fewer people have been vaccinated so are more at risk of being hospitalised.
Pfizer’s antiviral Covid pill shows effectiveness against the Omicron variant
Pfizer’s Covid pill showed effectiveness against the Omicron variant in lab tests.
The company revealed data showing that its pill Paxlovid showed promise in a laboratory environment in three tests.
Nirmatrelvir, the drug’s active ingredient, showed effectiveness is neutralising the virus in the trials that are still pending peer review.
The highly mutated Omicron variant has displayed the ability to bypass vaccines and Covid treatments since it first emerged last year.
Pharmaceutical companies have been working to tweak vaccines and treatments to be effective against the new mutant strain.
Dr Michael Dolsten, Pfizer’s chief science officer, said: ‘We specifically designed Paxlovid to retain its activity across coronaviruses, as well as current variants of concern with predominantly spike protein mutations.’
He added that the antiviral pill showed the ability to cut the risk of hospitalisation or death from the virus by 90 percent if taken early in infection.
Professor Frank van Haren, study author from the Australian National University, said: ‘This drug is already available in hospitals all over the world.
‘It is a very inexpensive drug. If it is as effective as our early results suggest, it could have a major impact in our fight against Covid.’
Covid can also cause the body’s immune system to overreact in a process known as inflammation, which can scar the lungs and even trigger blood clots.
Around 20 per cent of people infected with the virus develop hypoxaemia — a drop in oxygen saturation in the blood.
This is the main cause of hospitalisation, according to the ANU and King’s College London researchers.
And some of those in hospital experience respiratory failure, with up to a quarter requiring mechanical ventilation in intensive care.
Co-author Professor Clive Page, from King’s, said: ‘Inhaled heparin has antiviral properties which work by binding to the spike proteins the coronavirus uses to enter the cells of the body.
‘Inhaled heparin effectively stops the virus infecting cells in the lungs and could also stop people from getting the virus from others.
‘It also works as an anti-inflammatory drug — the medicine has the ability to calm everything down when the body is mounting an exaggerated response to the virus.
‘We already know heparin can reduce lung damage caused by this inflammation and the immune response overdrive that we see in other lung diseases which could provide benefit to patients hospitalised with Covid.’
He added: ‘There is no other drug that has these three different effects – anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-coagulant.’
Britain currently has two antiviral treatments specifically for Covid approved — Merck’s molnupiravir and Pfizer’s Paxlovid — but the researchers will continue to collect evidence on heparin’s use in fighting off the virus.
Other treatments for seriously ill patients including monoclonal antibodies and dexamethasone.
The study, published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, analysed 98 Covid patients in hospital with the virus who were given heparin in the US and Argentina between April 2020 and January 2021.
Most patients would not have been vaccinated because of the time frame.
They were split over two hospitals in the US — Frederick Health Hospital in Maryland, and Coney Island Hospital in New York — and the San Camilo Clinic in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The patients in the study had an average age of 66. The majority were not hooked up to ventilators.
Nearly two thirds were already on remdesivir, an antiviral licensed for emergency use in Covid patients in the UK.
No comparison group not taking heparin was used, so it is impossible to tell whether the drug was truly behind the improvements in patients.
Researchers measured their level of blood oxygen levels before and after being given the drug — which was administered in three different dosages.
The drug costs the NHS just £16.50 per dose when administering 5,000 International Units per dose — the second most common dosage used in the study (32 per cent).
They found it increased in all groups after taking the drug, with the biggest jump seen in patients given the highest dosage of 25,000 IU per dose, which was given to 62 per cent of patients.
A total of 69 patients (70 per cent) survived the virus with 29 (30 per cent) dying. Improving oxygen levels helped the survivors avoid needing to be put on a ventilator.
The researchers also measured their bleeding to determine how safe the drug was.
Despite two patients already on ventilators suffering major bleeding, they concluded the drug was generally unlikely to cause problems.
The drug has an excellent safety record in patients with other respiratory diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
The authors said their study showed promising signs for heparin’s use in treating Covid, adding they are continuing further studies into its effects.