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Experts say people who take statins, especially those with heart disease, should get vaccinated against COVID-19. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • A recent study suggests that people who take statins may have a higher chance of serious illness if they develop COVID-19.
  • Researchers say the high risk may come from the fact that statins increase the production of an enzyme that the coronavirus uses to gain entry.
  • However, recent research from earlier this year reported that statin use may actually lower a person’s risk of serious COVID-19 illness.

Statins are a proven lifesaver for many people at risk of cardiovascular disease.

But the cholesterol-lowering drugs may also raise the risk of serious illness among users who develop COVID-19, a new study concludes.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland who examined medical records of 4,447 patients admitted for COVID-19 reported that statin use was associated with an 18 percent increase in the risk of more serious illness from the disease.

“One plausible explanation for this finding is that statins increase cellular production of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 [commonly known as ACE2], the receptor on a cell’s surface through which SARS-CoV-2 gains entry,” said Dr. Petros Karakousis, a senior study author and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“Therefore, statins may lower a cell’s resistance to infection and, in turn, increase the odds that the patient will have a more severe case of COVID-19,” Karakousis said.

However, COVID-19 mortality rates were not affected either positively or negatively by taking statins, the study found.

People with heart disease are considered to have a higher risk of serious COVID-19 illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The agency recommends that high-risk individuals get vaccinated against the disease and designates people with cardiovascular illnesses as a priority population for vaccines and booster shots.

The possible increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness from taking statins is an additional reason why this population should get vaccinated, officials say.

“Despite the apparent beneficial effect of statins on the outcomes of various infectious diseases, our study revealed that their specific use to treat COVID-19 is probably not merited,” Karakousis said.

“Researchers and healthcare providers are trying to look for ways to weigh the risks and benefits” of statin use in people with COVID-19, said Dr. Sri Banerjee, a faculty member in the PhD in Public Health program for Walden University in Minnesota.

“While at first glance the findings seem to demonstrate that statin use may be associated with increased severity of infection, the level of evidence and the beneficial effect of statins should also be noted,” Banerjee told Healthline.

“First, the level of evidence for this study is not as strong in comparison to the controlled trials that demonstrate a clear benefit of statins for preventing heart disease,” said Banerjee.

He urged healthcare professionals to continue to follow the American Heart Association’s guidelines for treating high cholesterol, which includes recommendations for statin use.

“Heart disease has also been a long-term effect of the virus, which is not being studied,” he noted. “Second, people who use statins may also be overweight, have diabetes, or experience high blood pressure, all of which could also cause worsened severity of COVID-19 infection.”

The new research hardly settles whether statins are good or bad for COVID-19 patients.

In fact, other recent studies directly contradict the findings of the Johns Hopkins report.

In July 2021, a study concluded that statins prescribed prior to hospital admission were associated with a more than 40 percent reduction in in-hospital deaths and greater than a 25 percent reduction in the risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease.

“We found that not only are statins and anti-hypertensive medications safe, they may very well be protective in patients hospitalized for COVID, especially among those with a history of hypertension or cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Lori Daniels, lead author of the study, and professor and director of the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at UC San Diego Health.

Daniels speculated that statins may reduce the levels of cholesterol, to which the virus that causes COVID-19 needs to bind.

In addition, the anti-inflammatory effect of statins may also help reduce the severity of a coronavirus infection.