In a letter to The Times this month, David Fedson, a retired professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, Susan Chu, editor of the influenza website fluwilkie.com, and British flu vaccine expert, Peter Dunhill, of University College London, point to a recent study of the virus behind the 1918 flu pandemic. This suggests that many of the 50 million deaths were caused by an extreme host immune response in the form of a cytokine storm.
A similar response, the scientists say, had been responsible for most of the 148 deaths from H5N1 infections. Statins, they argue, are known to damp down this kind of response and need to be studied in this indication.
The letter says: ‘By modifying the influenza “cytokine storm”, statins could be life-saving.
‘The scientific rationale for considering statins for pandemic use is persuasive, but the public health rationale is hugely compelling.’
Dr Richard Dawood, a London GP who treats journalists travelling to areas infected by avian flu, agreed. He said any research into immuno-modulation is to be welcomed.
‘The elderly and anyone with a weak immune system were effectively protected against the virus in 1918 because they didn’t suffer this extreme cytokine storm reaction,’ he said. ‘The same has been seen with avian flu. As a result, the whole question of how immuno-suppressant drugs can calm down these immune reactions is a fertile area for research right now.
‘We need research on new antivirals that attack the infection at source as well as treatments to modulate the immune response. The contribution of statins could be significant but we won’t know until the research has been done.’