Researchers led by Joseph Vinetz, MD, an infectious diseases specialist, were interested in finding out if an oral medication used to treat pancreatitis had the potential to reduce the viral load (the amount of virus in your body) SARS-CoV-2 and improve symptoms in people with newly diagnosed with COVID-19.
The study showed that the camostat mesylate medication did not do much to lessen the viral load. But, to the researchers’ surprise, it brought a different benefit. “The patients who received the drug didn’t lose any sense of smell or taste. That was a ‘wow’ factor,” says Dr. Vinetz.
This is because the loss of taste and smell is common in covid. For many, the senses return as the infection fades. But for others, the effect is long-lasting.
Dr. Vinetz says he was initially motivated to look into camostat mesylate after seeing an April 2020 study published in Cell that showed how this medicine could prevent SARS-CoV-2 from entering cells.
Besides Dr. Vinetz, the research was done by Anne Spichler Moffarah, MD, Ph.D., an infectious diseases specialist, and Gary Desir, MD, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. Geoffrey Chupp, MD, director of the Yale Center for Asthma and Airways Disease, ran the clinical trial.
The Phase II randomized trial enrolled 70 participants who tested positive for COVID-19 within three days of starting the study. Participants took medicine four times a day for seven days.
“My daughter had COVID a year ago, and she still has trouble smelling and tasting things,” says Dr. Desir. “This drug seems to modulate that loss of smell and taste. It has very few side effects and has been studied extensively. This could be the type of treatment given to someone with COVID at the onset of the infection.”
If the drug were to be approved for this purpose, the doctors believe it could be a game-changer. “It wouldn’t be an expensive medication. Our idea was that everyone would take it if they were diagnosed because it’s hard to predict who will lose their sense of smell or taste, and it’s better to prevent it than to wait for it to happen,” Dr. Desir says.
“People who got camostat mesylate in the trial started feeling less tired and better overall after day four, which was statistically different from the placebo group,” Dr. Vinetz says. “And there were essentially no adverse effects in the camostat mesylate group.”
He adds that whether camostat mesylate could help restore a sense of taste or smell in someone who has lost it is unknown. “More studies would help us with that,” Dr. Chupp says.
Still, the doctors are optimistic about their surprise discovery can positively impact the fight against COVID-19. “A drug such as camostat mesylate presents an opportunity,” says Dr. Chupp.