Does Vitamin D Help Protect People from COVID-19? Some Evidence Suggests Yes

A comprehensive global study published in 2017 on respiratory infections would say yes:

A new global collaborative study has confirmed that vitamin D supplementation can help protect against acute respiratory infections. The study, a participant data meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials including more than 11,000 participants, has been published online in The BMJ.

“Most people understand that vitamin D is critical for bone and muscle health,” said Carlos Camargo of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the study’s senior author. “Our analysis has also found that it helps the body fight acute respiratory infection, which is responsible for millions of deaths globally each year.”

Additionally, a professor of respiratory infection and immunity at Queen Mary University of London had this to say about vitamin D:

“Vitamin D could almost be thought of as a designer drug for helping the body to handle viral respiratory infections,” he said. “It boosts the ability of cells to kill and resist viruses and simultaneously dampens down harmful inflammation, which is one of the big problems with Covid.”

The pharmaceutical industry obviously can’t make enormous profits from vitamin D, and that’s part of why it hasn’t been explored more as a protective mechanism. With all the benefits of vitamin D and the lack of downsides to it however, it is worth getting enough vitamin D (through sufficient sunlight exposure and a good diet) to protect against respiratory infections such as the flu and COVID-19.

Widely Available Drug Dexamethasone Shown to Cut Deaths by a Third in Severely Ill COVID-19 Patients

The coronavirus pandemic remains severe, but dexamethasone (a steroid) is a cheap and relatively common drug that has apparently been shown in a rigorous trial to significantly reduce mortality rates in the most severely ill COVID-19 patients. This drug is not a cure and it wasn’t shown to help patients with moderate COVID-19 symptoms, but the drug has been shown to save lives, and that’s important since presumably more people will eventually be able to recover instead of dying to the coronavirus.

An inexpensive and commonly used steroid can save the lives of people seriously ill with COVID-19, a randomized, controlled clinical trial in the United Kingdom has found. The drug, called dexamethasone, is the first shown to reduce deaths from the coronavirus that has killed more than 430,000 people globally. In the trial, it cut deaths by about one-third in patients who were on ventilators because of coronavirus infection.

“It’s a startling result,” says Kenneth Baillie, an intensive-care physician at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who serves on the steering committee of the trial, called RECOVERY. “It will clearly have a massive global impact.” The RECOVERY study announced the findings in a press release on 16 June, but its researchers say that they are aiming to publish their results quickly and that they are sharing their findings with regulators in the United Kingdom and internationally.

The RECOVERY trial, launched in March, is one of the world’s biggest randomized, controlled trials for coronavirus treatments; it is testing a range of potential therapies. The study enrolled 2,100 participants who received dexamethasone at a low or moderate dose of six milligrams per day for ten days, and compared how they fared against about 4,300 people who received standard care for coronavirus infection.

The effect of dexamethasone was most striking among critically ill patients on ventilators. Those who were receiving oxygen therapy but were not on ventilators also saw improvement: their risk of dying was reduced by 20%. The steroid had no effect on people with mild cases of COVID-19 — those not receiving oxygen or ventilation.

Shortly after the results were released, the UK government announced that it had immediately authorized use of dexamethasone for patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who required oxygen, including those on ventilators.

Rigorous study

“It is a major breakthrough,” says Peter Horby, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Oxford, UK, and a chief investigator on the trial. Use of steroids to treat viral respiratory infections such as COVID-19 has been controversial, Horby notes. Data from steroid trials during outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Middle East respiratory syndrome caused by related coronaviruses were inconclusive, he says. Nevertheless, given dexamethasone’s widespread availability, and some promising results from steroid studies in previous outbreaks, Horby says RECOVERY investigators felt it important to test the treatment in a rigorous clinical trial.

Treatment guidelines from the World Health Organization and many countries have cautioned against treating people with coronavirus with steroids, and some investigators were concerned about anecdotal reports of widespread steroid treatment. The drugs suppress the immune system, which could provide some relief from patients whose lungs are ravaged by an over-active immune response that sometimes manifests in severe cases of COVID-19. But such patients may still need a fully functioning immune system to fend off the virus itself.

The RECOVERY trial suggests that at the doses tested, the benefits of steroid treatment may outweigh the potential harm. The study found no outstanding adverse events from the treatment, investigators said. “This treatment can be given to pretty much anyone,” says Horby.

And the pattern of response — with a greater impact on severe COVID-19 and no effect on mild infections — matches the notion that a hyperactive immune response is more likely to be harmful in long-term, serious infections, says Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “When you’re so far advanced that you’re on a ventilator, it’s usually that you have an aberrant or hyperactive inflammatory response that contributes as much to the morbidity and mortality as any direct viral effect.”

“Finding effective treatments like this will transform the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and economies across the world,” said Nick Cammack, head of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator at Wellcome, a UK biomedical research charity in London, in a statement. “While this study suggests dexamethasone only benefits severe cases, countless lives will be saved globally.”

Easy to administer

So far, the only drug shown to benefit COVID-19 patients in a large, randomized, controlled clinical trial is the antiviral drug remdesivir. Although remdesivir1 was shown to shorten the amount of time that patients may need to spend in the hospital, it did not have a statistically significant effect on deaths.

Remdesivir is also in short supply. Although the drug’s maker — Gilead Sciences of Foster City, California — has taken steps to ramp up production of remdesivir, it is currently available only to a limited number of hospitals around the world. And remdesivir is complex to administer: it must be given by injection over the course of several days.

Dexamethasone, by contrast, is a medical staple found on pharmaceutical shelves worldwide and is available as a pill — a particular benefit as coronavirus infections continue to rise in countries with limited access to healthcare. “For less than £50, you can treat 8 patients and save one life,” said Martin Landray, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, and another chief investigator on the RECOVERY trial.

The findings could also have implications for other severe respiratory illnesses, Baillie adds. For example, steroid treatments for a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome are also controversial. “This really gives us a very good reason to look closely at that, because the mortality benefit is so extraordinarily large,” Baillie says. “I think this will affect patients well beyond COVID-19.”

Low Vitamin D Levels Associated With Higher Coronavirus Mortality Rates

Patients with severe vitamin D deficiencies have been found in research to experience more coronavirus-related complications. Exposure to 20 or 30 minutes of sunlight a day and a healthy diet are good ways to keep high vitamin D levels.

After studying global data from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers have discovered a strong correlation between severe vitamin D deficiency and mortality rates.

Led by Northwestern University, the research team conducted a statistical analysis of data from hospitals and clinics across China, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States.

The researchers noted that patients from countries with high COVID-19 mortality rates, such as Italy, Spain and the UK, had lower levels of vitamin D compared to patients in countries that were not as severely affected.

This does not mean that everyone — especially those without a known deficiency — needs to start hoarding supplements, the researchers caution.

“While I think it is important for people to know that vitamin D deficiency might play a role in mortality, we don’t need to push vitamin D on everybody,” said Northwestern’s Vadim Backman, who led the research. “This needs further study, and I hope our work will stimulate interest in this area. The data also may illuminate the mechanism of mortality, which, if proven, could lead to new therapeutic targets.”

The research is available on medRxiv, a preprint server for health sciences.

Backman is the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. Ali Daneshkhah, a postdoctoral research associate in Backman’s laboratory, is the paper’s first author.

Backman and his team were inspired to examine vitamin D levels after noticing unexplained differences in COVID-19 mortality rates from country to country. Some people hypothesized that differences in healthcare quality, age distributions in population, testing rates or different strains of the coronavirus might be responsible. But Backman remained skeptical.

“None of these factors appears to play a significant role,” Backman said. “The healthcare system in northern Italy is one of the best in the world. Differences in mortality exist even if one looks across the same age group. And, while the restrictions on testing do indeed vary, the disparities in mortality still exist even when we looked at countries or populations for which similar testing rates apply.

“Instead, we saw a significant correlation with vitamin D deficiency,” he said.

By analyzing publicly available patient data from around the globe, Backman and his team discovered a strong correlation between vitamin D levels and cytokine storm — a hyperinflammatory condition caused by an overactive immune system — as well as a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and mortality.

“Cytokine storm can severely damage lungs and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and death in patients,” Daneshkhah said. “This is what seems to kill a majority of COVID-19 patients, not the destruction of the lungs by the virus itself. It is the complications from the misdirected fire from the immune system.”

This is exactly where Backman believes vitamin D plays a major role. Not only does vitamin D enhance our innate immune systems, it also prevents our immune systems from becoming dangerously overactive. This means that having healthy levels of vitamin D could protect patients against severe complications, including death, from COVID-19.

“Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half,” Backman said. “It will not prevent a patient from contracting the virus, but it may reduce complications and prevent death in those who are infected.”

Backman said this correlation might help explain the many mysteries surrounding COVID-19, such as why children are less likely to die. Children do not yet have a fully developed acquired immune system, which is the immune system’s second line of defense and more likely to overreact.

“Children primarily rely on their innate immune system,” Backman said. “This may explain why their mortality rate is lower.”

Backman is careful to note that people should not take excessive doses of vitamin D, which might come with negative side effects. He said the subject needs much more research to know how vitamin D could be used most effectively to protect against COVID-19 complications.

“It is hard to say which dose is most beneficial for COVID-19,” Backman said. “However, it is clear that vitamin D deficiency is harmful, and it can be easily addressed with appropriate supplementation. This might be another key to helping protect vulnerable populations, such as African-American and elderly patients, who have a prevalence of vitamin D deficiency.”

Backman is the director of Northwestern’s Center for Physical Genomics and Engineering and the associate director for Research Technology and Infrastructure at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University.