At the beginning of the pandemic, doctors in France prepared for an influx of psychiatric patients with Covid-19, creating special units in hospitals to care for people with mental health problems who contracted the novel coronavirus. People with psychiatric disorders were presumed to be at an increased risk for infection because of potential difficulties complying with protective measures, limited access to health care, close living conditions for those residing in psychiatric wards, and high rates of comorbidities like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But to the doctors’ surprise, the units remained largely empty, even during the most severe stage of the pandemic.
This observation led the doctors to ask whether psychiatric drugs could be offering some protection against the coronavirus. Sure enough, they found that 10 of the 18 most commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs — antidepressant, antipsychotic, and anti-anxiety medications — have known antiviral properties, including against the coronaviruses SARS and MERS.
Four different types of therapies — the antiviral drug remdesivir, convalescent plasma from recovered patients, monoclonal antibodies, and the steroid dexamethasone — are currently authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat severe Covid-19. But three of these therapies are expensive and must be administered intravenously, while the fourth, dexamethasone, can actually backfire and suppress the immune system if given prematurely.
What is still desperately needed, physicians say, is a safe, cheap oral medication that could be prescribed to people with mild Covid-19 to ease their symptoms, help fight the infection early on, and prevent their decline into more severe disease. Ideally, this would be a drug that’s already approved for another purpose, which would speed up the authorization process and get the medication to patients as soon as possible. Some experts are now saying that psychiatric drugs could fit the bill.