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Experts say blood thinners can help break up small blood clots that sometimes go unnoticed. Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • New research indicates blood thinners may be effective in treating people hospitalized with moderate COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Researchers said the common medications can help break up smaller blood clots that may go unnoticed during treatments.
  • They add that the worldwide collaboration on this study can set an example for future researchers.

A new tool for battling COVID-19 symptoms may already be in the hands of medical teams everywhere: blood thinners.

A newly released global analysis shows that in people hospitalized with moderate COVID-19 symptoms the use of blood thinners could be a key component to a quicker recovery and a decreased impact of symptoms.

“I think this is transformative,” Dr. Jeffrey S. Berger, a study author and director of the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone Health in New York, told Healthline.

“This will be so helpful,” he said. “Hospitals are overrun. Critical care is so overloaded. This study should have a major impact on that.”

The role blood clots play in moderate to severe COVID-19 cases became clear early on in the pandemic, Berger said.

He noted that at the onset medical teams saw “a lot of blood clots” in people with COVID-19 that were causing devastating side effects such as heart attacks, strokes, and lung damage.

Berger said it wasn’t until autopsy results became available that they noticed people who died from COVID-19 didn’t have large blood clots but rather showed “micro thrombosis,” smaller and more plentiful blood clots.

“All were contributing to the need for ventilators, kidney damage, and, yes, ultimately, death,” he said.

The autopsies are what led investigators to study if and how blood thinners could help reduce symptoms.

“[Information from those autopsies] enabled us to prove this hypothesis,” Berger said.

Now, using the blood thinner heparin at a high dose, he said, medical professionals are “able to not just reduce clots, but improve overall recovery” in those with symptoms severe enough to land them in the hospital, but not serious enough to require support such as ventilation.

Berger said the hope of researchers, who come from more than 300 hospitals worldwide, is that this knowledge will not just slow down the progress of symptoms in hospitalized patients, but eventually help patients being treated at home avoid the hospital entirely.

Dr. Vibhu Parcha, a fellow at the University of Alabama Birmingham’s division of cardiovascular disease, said this knowledge could lead to better understanding and treatment of COVID-19.

“These data are very compelling for making anticoagulation an important part of COVID-19 treatment regimens in hospitals across the nation,” Parcha told Healthline.

“We will be able to reduce the number of people requiring more intensive care and also conserve our resources,” he said.

Berger noted that there is still more to learn, but he is optimistic that blood thinners will turn out to be an effective and useful treatment.

“While this is very exciting and potentially transformational, we have to be a little bit cautious while we continue to analyze the data,” he said. “It seems clear that the benefit will outweigh the risk.”

Berger said the cooperative effort in gathering and studying the data worldwide for this study could also lead to better research practices overall.

“The platform of collaboration that we had across continents will mark a new era in how we do research,” he said.

Berger said this kind of research will serve to improve medicine.

“Everything was happening so fast (last spring). The virus was rearing its ugly head fast and with a vengeance,” he said. “It was all we could do to get by. In March and April, we were under water.”

That, he said, had a benefit they now realize.

“It enabled us to learn very, very quickly,” he noted.

Parcha agreed, saying the effort shows the research community at its best.

“These data underscore the scientific community’s contribution of using the clinical observations and utilizing the repurposing of existing medications to combat a novel and lethal disease,” Parcha said.

In time, Berger said, this could also lead to the use of blood thinners in other viruses, such as the flu.

“We will be able to leverage what we’ve learned from COVID-19 patients to treat other things,” he said. “We and others have shown the high risk of blood clots in other infections, such as influenza.”

Parcha said that could happen but cautions that more study is needed.

“We need to be cautious in our application of the observed evidence for other clinical conditions as the current trial was focused on COVID-19, which is different from our known viral and respiratory illnesses. Due to potential bleeding events, these medications should not be given without appropriate clinical indication,” Parcha said.