Hospitalized COVID-19 patients treated with famotidine, the active ingredient in Pepcid heartburn medication, were more than twice as likely to survive infection, according to a CNN report of preliminary research posted May 19 on a pre-publication website.
Ten percent of patients who were administered famotidine were put on a ventilator or died in comparison with 22% of patients who did not receive the drug.
The results of this first round of clinical trials, conducted at New York’s Northwell Health, are promising but far from conclusive. It’s not clear whether famotidine caused or is coincidentally associated with the lower COVID-19 death rate. Furthermore, the study has yet to undergo the rigorous peer review academic journal publication process.
Patients with COVID-19 and others are advised not to stockpile famotidine to treat COVID-19, not to ingest excess quantities of famotidine, and not to take the medication outside of physician-directed use for heartburn issues.
Despite these caveats, heartburn sufferers may find themselves without their drug of choice.
On May 4, shortly after the clinical trials were first reported by Science magazine on April 26, the Food and Drug Administration announced a shortage of famotidine tablets. In combination with the FDA’s April 1 recall of heartburn medication Zantac (ranitidine), those with heartburn and related conditions have even fewer treatment alternatives.
It’s believed that famotidine may be effective in treating COVID-19 because its chemical structure enables it to bind to a coronavirus enzyme and prevent the virus from replicating in the body.
Interest in famotidine as a possible COVID-19 treatment first arose when Boston-based infectious disease specialist Michael Callahan traveled to Wuhan, China to assist in over-taxed hospitals. COVID-19 was proving especially deadly in patients with hypertension and chronic pulmonary artery disease. Particularly puzzling to Callahan and his colleagues was why low-income patients in this subset seemed to fare better than their wealthier counterparts.
These anecdotal observations led Callahan and other physicians to review the medical records of more than 6,000 COVID-19 patients. They discovered that many patients that survived COVID-19 suffered from chronic heartburn and treated the condition not with the more expensive Prilosec (omeprazole) but with the more affordable famotidine.
Second Famotidine Study
A second trial evaluating two groups of COVID-19 patients, one receiving intravenous famotidine at a dosage nine times higher than what is usually administered for heartburn and another receiving a placebo, is now underway.
Results are expected in a few months.
By Joanna Shawn Brigid O’Leary
Joanna Shawn Brigid “Bridey” O’Leary was born in Alexandria, Virginia, grew up in central Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and now calls Houston, Texas home. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and pre-medical studies and earned a Ph.D. in Victorian literature from Rice University. Bridey has served as a medical writer, culinary historian, and travel/food critic for media outlets and academic publications such as Neurosurgery, Let’s Go travel guides, Stroke, Wine Enthusiast, the Onion, Houston Press, Texas Highways and Houstonia.
Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Duong