Type 2 diabetes drug may reduce risk of severe COVID-19 cases

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Experts say the drugs were associated with a lower risk of death and hospitalization

A new study conducted by researchers from Penn State found that a class of diabetes and obesity drugs may protect diabetics from contracting severe cases of COVID-19

According to their findings, diabetics who were taking glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor drugs (GLP-1R) up to six months prior to contracting COVID-19 were more likely to have better outcomes. They had a lower mortality risk, were less likely to be hospitalized, and were less likely to have respiratory issues. 

“Vaccines have been shown to reduce hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” said researcher Jennifer Nyland. “But the scientific community continues to search for treatments that may complement vaccination by further reducing the risk for hospitalization, respiratory complications, and death from COVID-19 in at-risk patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes.”

Understanding the protective benefits

For the study, the researchers analyzed electronic medical records from nearly 30,000 people who had type 2 diabetes and tested positive for COVID-19 between January and September of 2020. The team looked at three different types of diabetes drugs -- GLP-1R, dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors, and pioglitazone -- to see how these medications impacted the participants’ health outcomes. 

Of the three different drugs, GLP-1R was the only one that effectively reduced participants’ risk of hospitalization, death, and respiratory complications when taken within six months of contracting COVID-19. The researchers learned that pioglitazone was solely associated with a lower risk of being hospitalized, and DPP-4 inhibitors were linked only with a reduced risk of respiratory issues. 

“Our results are very promising as GLP-1R agonist treatment appears to be highly protective, but more research is needed to establish a causal relationship between the use of these drugs and decreased risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes in patients with type 2 diabetes,” said researcher Patricia “Sue” Grigson. 

More trials needed

The researchers explained that GLP-1R drugs have anti-inflammatory properties, which is likely how they provide protective benefits against COVID-19. Moving forward, the team hopes to conduct more trials with these drugs to better understand how this relationship exists. They also plan to see if these types of medications can help consumers who aren’t diabetic. 

“Further research is needed to confirm whether GLP-1R agonists can protect against severe COVID-19 complications,” said researcher Dr. Nazia Raja-Khan. “There is also a need to determine the conditions in which these drugs could be protective and how they could be used safely during COVID-19 hospitalization.” 

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