OTC Heartburn Drug Eyed for COVID-19


Many people turn to the over-the-counter drug Pepcid (famotidine) after they’ve eaten spicy food, and a new trial is testing whether the heartburn medication may also fight COVID-19.

Pepcid belongs to a group of drugs known as H2 blockers. Other medications in this category include Tagamet (cimetidine) and Zantac (ranitidine). Side effects associated with Pepcid include headache, constipation and diarrhea, though they are not common. Rare side effects include easy bruising/bleeding, mental health/mood changes, and irregular heartbeat.

The idea that Pepcid could potentially treat COVID-19 came from Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease doctor Michael Callahan, who was already conducting research on avian flu in China in January when COVID-19 began spreading across the country. He travelled to Wuhan and began examining records of thousands of COVID-19 patients, and saw that many suffered from chronic heartburn. He found that those that were already taking Pepcid had a lower mortality rate: 14% compared with 27% for those not on the drug.

Pepcid may be effective against COVID-19 because it binds to an enzyme, preventing the virus from making copies of itself.

Last month, researchers at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, part of Northwell Health, a large hospital system in the New York City area, started enrollment in a trial testing Pepcid, with a goal of 1,174 people total. There will be two arms: one will be given oral hydroxychloroquine and intravenous Pepcid, while the other group will be given hydroxychloroquine and a placebo infusion. Patients in the Pepcid arm will receive the drug at nine times the normal dose.

The FDA recently issued a drug safety communication for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine following reports of serious heart rhythm problems in some patients with COVID-19 taking one of the medications.