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Drugs used by some people with Type 2 diabetes may reduce their risks of severe COVID

A type of drug already used to treat Type 2 diabetes, when taken six months prior to the diagnosis of COVID-19, was associated with a decreased risk of hospitalization, respiratory complications and death in COVID-19 patients with Type 2 diabetes, according to researchers at Penn State College of Medicine.

A type of drug already used to treat Type 2 diabetes, when taken six months prior to the diagnosis of COVID-19, was associated with a decreased risk of hospitalization, respiratory complications and death in COVID-19 patients with Type 2 diabetes, according to researchers at Penn State College of Medicine.

Penn State College of Medicine via Getty Images

People with Type 2 diabetes may already be taking medications that reduce their risks of severe COVID-19, including hospitalization, respiratory complications and death, according to a new study.

Glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor (GLP-1R) agonists are known to reduce inflammation in the body, a problem that people with Type 2 diabetes often struggle with. COVID-19 is also known to trigger extreme inflammatory responses in severe cases, so researchers from Penn State College of Medicine speculated these medications could offer some protection against serious COVID-19.

The team analyzed medical records of nearly 30,000 people with both COVID-19 and Type 2 diabetes between January and September 2020. About 23,000 patients included in the study who were not taking GLP-1R agonists or other diabetes medications were compared with those who were to see what effects the drugs had on COVID-19 outcomes. Data came from 56 large health care organizations across the country.

People with Type 2 diabetes who were taking GLP-1R agonists within six months before getting infected with the coronavirus were “significantly less likely” to be hospitalized, suffer from respiratory complications and die from COVID-19 a month after testing positive compared to people of similar age, sex, race, ethnicity, body mass index and other medical conditions not taking the drugs, according to the study.

Specifically, patients taking GLP-1R agonists benefited from a 33% reduced risk of coronavirus-related hospitalization, 38% lower risk of respiratory complications and 42% reduced risk of death when matched with people of similar characteristics.

The team likewise studied whether two other drugs used to treat Type 2 diabetes with similar anti-inflammatory properties also offered protection against COVID-19 among people with the condition. It learned dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors reduced risk of respiratory complications while pioglitazone lowered risk of hospitalization, but neither decreased the likelihood of dying from COVID-19.

The study was published Monday in the journal Diabetes.

About 90-95% of Americans with diabetes have Type 2, but less than 15% of people with it take GLP-1R agonists to treat their condition, researchers estimated. What remains unknown is whether people who don’t have Type 2 diabetes can safely take these drugs as a COVID-19 therapy to improve their chances of recovery from severe illness.

The team said it’s important to learn if there’s an optimal time to take these drugs during coronavirus infection that will lead to better health outcomes, which will require further research.

“Vaccines have been shown to reduce hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” study co-author Jennifer Nyland, assistant professor of neural and behavioral sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, said in a news release. “But the scientific community continues to search for treatments that may complement vaccination by further reducing the risk of hospitalization, respiratory complications and death from COVID-19 in at-risk patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes.”

The researchers agree that more study is needed to confirm whether the drugs are directly responsible for the reduced risk of severe COVID-19 among people with Type 2 diabetes, though the results are “very promising.”

Type 2 diabetes manifests over many years and occurs when someone’s body doesn’t use insulin — a hormone that regulates the amount of sugar in blood — as it should. It’s common for people with this kind of diabetes to not notice any symptoms before diagnosis, so experts suggest regular blood tests for those at risk. The condition can be prevented or delayed with the help of a healthy lifestyle, including proper diet, exercise and weight management.

A separate study published in August found that the number of people under 20 years old living with Type 2 diabetes grew by 95% from 2001 to 2017.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why diabetes diagnoses are seeing what experts call “concerning increases,” but researchers of the study speculated rising rates of childhood obesity, exposure to obesity and diabetes in utero, and increased diabetes screenings may play a role.

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Katie Camero is a McClatchy National Real-Time Science reporter. She’s an alumna of Boston University and has reported for the Wall Street Journal, Science, and The Boston Globe.

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