What are statins? ‘Miracle’ drug linked to reduced risk of death from Covid - side effects explained

Statin treatment has been linked to a slightly lower risk of death from Covid-19 in new research published in PLOS Medicine

People who are taking statins may be less likely to die from Covid-19 than similar people who are not on the medication, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet investigated the relationship between statins and Covid mortality using data from Swedish registers to assess 963,876 residents of Stockholm over the age of 45 between March and November last year.

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The study, published in PLOS Medicine, found that statin treatment was linked with a slightly lower risk of death from Covid-19, a correlation that did not vary significantly among risk groups.

What are statins?

Statins are a group of medicines that are prescribed for lowering cholesterol in the blood.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is often referred to as “bad cholesterol”, and the production of it inside the liver is reduced by statins.

People who have a high level of LDL cholesterol may be advised by their GP to take statins, as it can lead to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

A doctor may recommend taking statins if:

  • you have been diagnosed with a form of CVD
  • your personal and family medical history suggests you are likely to develop CVD at some point over the next 10 years and lifestyle measures have not reduced this risk

Statins come in the form of tablets that are taken once a day.

Those who are prescribed statins will usually have to continue taking them for life.

This is because cholesterol levels will return to a high level within a few weeks once the medication stops.

There are 5 types of statin available on prescription in the UK, which include:

  • atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • fluvastatin (Lescol)
  • pravastatin (Lipostat)
  • rosuvastatin (Crestor)
  • simvastatin (Zocor)

Do statins have any side effects?

Many people who take statins experience very few side effects, or none at all.

However, some may suffer with some minor symptoms, such as diarrhoea, headaches, or feeling sick.

Your GP should discuss the risks and benefits with you before statins are prescribed.

A review of scientific studies into the effectiveness of statins found around 1 in every 50 people who take the medicine for five years will avoid a serious event, such as a heart attack or stroke, as a result.

How do statins affect Covid-19?

The results of the research from the Karolinska Institutet analysed are based on analyses of data on participants’ prescribed medication and healthcare, and from the Cause of Death Register.

The information was analysed with respect to factors including diagnosed medical conditions, but researchers said randomised studies will be needed to determine whether this a causal relationship between statins and a reduced risk of death from Covid-19.

However, limitations of the study include the use of prescription data without the possibility of checking individual drug use, and not being able to control for risk factors such as smoking and high BMI.

Tim Chico, professor of cardiovascular medicine and honorary consultant cardiologist at the University of Sheffield, said: “Covid-19 can cause very severe lung infections but it also causes inflammation of the blood vessels.

“Because statins reduce inflammation in blood vessels there has been a lot of debate as to whether they might improve outcome in Covid-19.

“This study does not prove that statins reduce death in Covid-19, but does provide some supportive clues.

“It observes that people prescribed statins were less likely to die than similar people.

“However, this does not prove the statins caused the reduced death rates; to do so needs a randomised controlled trial of the kind the Recovery investigators have pioneered.”

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