By Annette Pinder
We recently wrote about a UB clinical trial enrolling individuals ages 18 to 80 suffering from long COVID symptoms. Thomas J. Guttuso Jr., MD of UBMD Neurology and a Jacobs School of Medicine professor, the study’s principal investigator, is treating the patients with a very small dose of lithium. Now, looking at the results in the first 19 patients receiving low-dose lithium therapy, 84% have reported improvement in their long COVID symptoms and have desired to continue lithium therapy.
The study is double-blind, which means that some patients receive the treatment, and others receive an inactive placebo. However, after 21 days, all patients can receive the treatment. For those concerned about lithium, Dr. Guttuso explains that a normal lithium dose for an individual treated for bipolar disorder would be 300 mg, whereas the dose for this trial is only 10 to 15 mg.
Knowing long COVID is believed to stem from chronic inflammation, and that lithium has known anti-inflammatory actions, Dr. Guttuso wanted to see the effects of administering a very small dose of lithium to a patient. “I was shocked when the patient improved within a matter of days,” he says. Since then, Dr. Guttuso heard that researchers in Spain published findings revealing that patients already taking lithium for bipolar disorder, who were also infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, had better outcomes than patients who were not taking lithium.
When area physicians heard of Dr. Guttuso’s success, they began referring their patients with long COVID to him. Eventually, he was treating 10 additional long COVID patients with low-dose lithium. Of these, 90% improved, without any side effects. “In just a matter of days, patients were improving. Some reported that their symptoms didn’t return even after they stopped taking lithium, while others needed to keep taking it.”
One patient, Jennifer Stewart of East Amherst, had a mild COVID-19 infection with few symptoms in January 2022, but her brain fog and intense fatigue persisted for months. “I’m a really energetic person, I never nap, and here I was taking naps in the middle of the day. I even slept through a Bills game I was going to watch. That’s how bad it was,” says Jennifer.
After thoroughly examining Stewart, Dr. Guttuso mentioned the outcomes he was seeing in patients taking lithium. “He explained that the low dose was the equivalent of taking a daily mineral like calcium or magnesium,” says Stewart. When he told her it takes about four days to begin working, she said, ‘Wow, that’s fast.” Amazingly, Stewart improved after two days. Her strong need for naps disappeared, she stopped taking lithium a few weeks later, and her symptoms never returned. When asked what advice she has for others with long COVID, Stewart doesn’t hesitate. “Why on earth wouldn’t you enroll in this trial?” she says. “My symptoms are completely gone.”
The clinical trial is funded by UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. To date, no patients have reported side effects felt to be due to lithium. Anyone with long COVID symptoms can also participate in UB’s Long COVID registry. Call 716-829-5454 for information.