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Treatments for COVID-19

May 18, 2022

What helps, what doesn't, and what's in the pipeline

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Most people who become ill with COVID-19 will be able to recover at home. Some of the same things you do to feel better if you have the flu — getting enough rest, staying well hydrated, and taking medications to relieve fever and aches and pains — also help with COVID-19.

Beyond that, the FDA has also authorized treatments that may be used for people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and other medications to curb the progression of COVID-19 in people who are not hospitalized but who are at risk for developing severe illness. Scientists continue working hard to develop other effective treatments.

Visit our Coronavirus Resource Center for more information on coronavirus and COVID-19.

I have tested positive for COVID-19 but am experiencing only mild symptoms. What will help me to recover at home?

Let your doctor know that you have COVID-19. Some people who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness may be candidates for oral antiviral treatment or intravenous monoclonal antibody therapy, both of which can reduce the risk of hospitalization and death.

If you’ve been told to recover at home, these measures can help reduce symptoms:

  • While you don't need to stay in bed, you should get plenty of rest.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • To reduce fever and ease aches and pains, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Be sure to follow directions. If you are taking any combination cold or flu medicine, keep track of all the ingredients and the doses. For acetaminophen, the total daily dose from all products should not exceed 3,000 milligrams.

Is it safe to take ibuprofen to treat symptoms of COVID-19?

Early in the pandemic, there were some concerns that NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) and naproxen (Aleve) might not be safe for people with COVID-19. However, the CDC now recommends taking medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to relieve fever if you have COVID-19. And the WHO has stated that there is no evidence that ibuprofen has any negative effects for people with COVID-19.

What therapies can help people who are at increased risk of severe COVID-19 to avoid hospitalization?

There is currently one FDA-authorized monoclonal antibody treatment that may be used to treat non-hospitalized adults and children over age 12 with mild to moderate symptoms who have recently tested positive for COVID-19, and who are at risk for developing severe COVID-19 or being hospitalized for it. The therapy is bebtelovimab, made by Eli Lilly. It must be given intravenously (by IV) soon after developing symptoms.

In laboratory tests, bebtelovimab was effective against BA.2, which is now the most common SARS-CoV-2 variant in the U.S.

In addition, the FDA has authorized the oral antiviral medications Paxlovid and molnupiravir, which have been shown to lower the risk of hospitalization and death in people who are at increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

Is there an antiviral pill that can reduce my risk of being hospitalized if I get COVID-19?

The FDA has authorized two antiviral pills for the treatment of COVID-19.

Paxlovid

On December 22, 2021, the FDA authorized an oral antiviral pill, called Paxlovid, for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in people ages 12 and older who are at increased risk for severe illness. The treatment is available by prescription only, after a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of symptom onset. The FDA’s authorization was based on study results released by Pfizer, the drug’s manufacturer, showing that Paxlovid significantly reduces the risk of COVID-related hospitalization and death compared to a placebo.

The phase 2/3 study, known as EPIC-HR, was randomized, double-blind, and placebo controlled. Study participants had symptomatic, confirmed, early COVID-19, were at increased risk for severe illness due to age or an underlying medical condition, and were not hospitalized. The 2,246 study participants took either a placebo or Paxlovid treatment (three tablets twice a day for five days), beginning treatment within five days of symptom onset.

By 28 days after treatment, those who had taken Paxlovid within five days of the start of symptoms had an 88% reduced risk of COVID-related hospitalization or death compared to placebo. Side effects of Paxlovid and placebo were comparable, and generally mild. They included impaired sense of taste, diarrhea, high blood pressure, and muscle aches.

Paxlovid is a protease inhibitor antiviral therapy made up of a medicine called nirmatrelvir and the HIV drug ritonavir. Nirmatrelvir was developed by Pfizer; it interferes with the ability of the coronavirus to replicate. Ritonavir slows the breakdown of nirmatrelvir, which translates to higher blood levels of nirmatrelvir and greater antiviral action for longer periods of time.

Laboratory study results, also announced in a Pfizer press release, suggest that Paxlovid is effective against the Omicron variant.

Paxlovid is not authorized to prevent infection, to prevent illness after exposure (prior to diagnosis), or to treat someone hospitalized with severe COVID-19. Antiviral medication is also not a substitute for getting vaccinated. The COVID vaccine, including boosters, remains more important than ever. We need layers of defense against this viral threat.

Molnupiravir

On December 23, 2021, the FDA authorized molnupiravir, an oral antiviral treatment manufactured by Merck, for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 in people ages 18 years and older who are at increased risk for severe illness. The treatment is available by prescription only, after a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of symptom onset. However, the FDA indicated that use of molnupiravir should be limited to situations in which other COVID-19 treatments "are not accessible or clinically appropriate."

In November, Merck released study results showing that compared to placebo, molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 30% in people with mild or moderate COVID-19 who were at high risk for severe COVID.

The study results were based on data from 1,433 study participants from the US and around the world. To be eligible for the randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study, the participants had to have been diagnosed with mild to moderate COVID-19, have started experiencing symptoms no more than five days prior to their enrollment in the study, and have at least one risk factor that put them at increased risk for a poor outcome from COVID-19. None of the participants were hospitalized at the time they entered the study. About half of the study participants took the antiviral drug molnupiravir: four capsules, twice a day, for five days, by mouth. The remaining study participants took a placebo.

Patients taking molnupiravir were 30% less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than those taking a placebo. Over the 29-day study period, 48 out of 709 (6.8%) of participants who took molnupiravir were hospitalized, and one person in this group died. In the placebo group, 68 out of 699 (9.7%) of participants were hospitalized, including nine participants in this group who died. The antiviral drug was effective against several COVID variants, including the Delta variant. Scientists are looking into the effectiveness of molnupiravir against the Omicron variant.

Side effects of molnupiravir include diarrhea, nausea, and dizziness. The drug is not recommended for use during pregnancy.

Molnupiravir was developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. It works by interfering with the COVID virus’s ability to replicate.

What is "Test to Treat"? Could it help me get antiviral treatment for COVID-19?

Test to Treat is a government initiative that makes it faster and easier for people with COVID-19 to obtain treatment. This is important because antiviral treatments for COVID-19 must be started within five days of a positive test or the start of symptoms. With Test to Treat, a person can get tested, get a prescription, and get their prescription filled, all in one place.

Here’s how it works. If you think you may have COVID-19, go to a Test to Treat site to get tested. If you test positive you will meet with a healthcare provider and, if you are eligible, will receive a prescription for antiviral treatment. You can then get your prescription filled at the same site.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • You can bring a positive at-home test to a Test to Treat site.
  • A healthcare provider at the Test to Treat site may ask about your medical history or other medications you take in order to make sure you are eligible for treatment.
  • The two antiviral treatments being prescribed and filled at Test to Treat sites are Paxlovid and molnupiravir (Lagevrio).

The Test to Treat web-based locator can help you find a Test to Treat site near you. You can also call 800-232-0233 to get help in English, Spanish, and more than 150 other languages.

Is the antidepressant drug fluvoxamine effective for treating COVID-19?

In May 2022, the FDA declined to authorize the use of the antidepressant fluvoxamine (Luvox) to treat COVID-19.

Lancet Global Health published a promising fluvoxamine study in October 2021. But the FDA did not find the study results persuasive when it came to fluvoxamine’s impact on COVID-related hospitalizations and death. The FDA also cited limitations of other trials, as well as two trials that failed to show a treatment benefit.

What are monoclonal antibodies? Can they help treat COVID-19?

Monoclonal antibodies are manmade versions of the antibodies that our bodies naturally make to fight invaders, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Bebtelovimab, made by Eli Lilly, is currently the only monoclonal antibody treatment that has been granted emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA to treat COVID-19.

Bebtelovimab may be used to treat non-hospitalized adults and children over age 12 with mild to moderate symptoms who have recently tested positive for COVID-19, and who are at risk for developing severe COVID-19 or being hospitalized for it. EUA for bebtelovimab, which was authorized in February 2022, states that the treatment should be given when "alternative COVID-19 treatment options approved or authorized by the FDA are not accessible or clinically appropriate." It must be given intravenously (by IV) soon after developing symptoms.

In laboratory tests, bebtelovimab was effective against BA.2, which is now the most common SARS-CoV-2 variant in the U.S.

As of April 2022, the number of patients who would benefit from monoclonal antibody treatment far exceeds the supply and the infrastructure to deliver this therapy.

A different monoclonal antibody treatment may help to save lives in a specific subgroup of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Some COVID patients get sicker because of an overreaction of the body’s immune response (a cytokine storm) to the viral infection. When this happens, the body overproduces interleukin-6 (IL-6) — a protein involved in inflammation — in lung cells. For these very ill hospitalized patients, the FDA has granted EUA for tocilizumab (Actemra), a monoclonal antibody that blocks the action of IL-6, and thereby dampens the exaggerated immune system response.

What is convalescent plasma? Does it help people with COVID-19?

When people recover from COVID-19, their blood contains antibodies that their bodies produced to fight the coronavirus and help them get well. Antibodies are found in plasma, a component of blood.

In August 2020, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for convalescent plasma in patients hospitalized with COVID-19. However, clinical evidence that this treatment is effective has been limited. As a result, the FDA narrowed its authorization in February 2021. Convalescent plasma is now authorized only for people who are immunocompromised, either because of a medical condition or because of a treatment that suppresses their immune system. The treatment may be given to hospitalized and non-hospitalized patients.

Who can donate plasma for COVID-19?

In order to donate plasma, a person must meet several criteria. They have to have tested positive for COVID-19, recovered, have no symptoms for 14 days, currently test negative for COVID-19, and have high enough antibody levels in their plasma. A donor and patient must also have compatible blood types. Once plasma is donated, it is screened for other infectious diseases, such as HIV.

Each donor produces enough plasma to treat one to three patients. Donating plasma should not weaken the donor's immune system, nor make the donor more susceptible to getting reinfected with the virus.

Blog posts

Do vitamin D, zinc, and other supplements help prevent COVID-19 or hasten healing?

Podcasts

COVID-19 therapies update: There are three potential pathways forming a bridge to a vaccine (recorded 4/13/20)

You've probably heard the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroqine is getting a hard look as a potential therapeutic agent in the fight against COVID-19. However, as Harvard Health Publishing senior faculty editor Dr. Rob Shmerling points out, evidence remains weak. On the brighter side, he points to three potential avenues in COVID-19 research where therapies may be put to use while a vaccine remains in development.

Visit our  Coronavirus Resource Center  for more information on coronavirus and COVID-19.

Image: fizkes/Getty Images

Disclaimer:

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.

No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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