Researchers in Edmonton are among several groups around the world, investigating whether there is any benefit in increasing a patient's blood levels of vitamin D as a way to protect them from COVID-19.
Dr. Aldo J. Montano-Loza, associate professor at the University of Alberta, is preparing to start a study of at least 70 Albertans who have contracted COVID-19 to see if vitamin D levels put them at risk for serious infection and increasing those levels will help your condition.
Participants randomized to the "high dose" arm of the study will receive two doses of high concentration of the vitamin in the first week of the study and one of these doses in each of the next two weeks. Individuals in the "low dose" arm will receive a much lower dose of vitamin D, but on a daily basis. The results will be compared to a control group.
"We believe that this can help to reduce the risk of worse presentations and even the duration of the disease," Montano-Loza told CTV News.
Montano-Loza hopes to start his research soon, but is just waiting for funding for the project. He also hopes to expand the study of vitamin D deficiency across Canada.
There is some urgency in this work, as more studies point to a possible link between the so-called "vitamin from the sun" and the severity of coronavirus infection. There has also been an increasing number of studies showing that vitamin D is somehow linked to COVID-19.
In a study with COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit in New Orleans, doctors found that 100% of the sickest patients under the age of 75 had vitamin deficiency, many of them at critical levels.
"We suspect that we would find a high proportion, but finding any population with 100% disabilities is quite impressive," said Dr. Frank Lau, an associate professor of clinical surgery at Louisiana State University. "It is definitely worth looking for more."
Vitamin D is known to play a crucial role in regulating the immune system and inflammation. Some studies show that people with low vitamin D have more severe symptoms of the virus, a higher risk of being admitted to the ICU and a 12 times greater risk of dying from the virus.
"You see it's people of color, older people, people with chronic illnesses, people in nursing homes, and what these people have in common is that they have lower levels of vitamin D," said William B. Grant, director of Sunlight, Nutrition and Health Research Center (SUNARC) in San Francisco, California.
Meanwhile, researchers in Ireland analyzed data showing COVID-19 infections and deaths are actually lower in countries where vitamin D is added to foods or where supplements are widely encouraged.
"In Nordic countries, such as Finland and Norway, where there is massive fortification or high intake of vitamin D or high intake of supplements, these countries had the (sic) lowest infection rates and lowest mortality rates due to COVID", said Dr. Eamon Laird, a researcher at Trinity College of Medicine in Ireland.
However, this area of study is still in its early stages and doctors still do not know if there is another factor at play here; therefore, researchers around the world have started testing vitamin supplements in patients with COVID-19 deficiency to see if it helps.
"We still have no evidence that supplementation makes a difference, but because of the first association, we definitely need more research," he said.
Some scientists warn against using high doses of vitamin D supplements for treatment with COVID-19.
Researchers from the UK, Europe and the USApublished a notice on Thursday in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health who says that while initial research warrants further studies, "there is currently no strong scientific evidence to show that too high a vitamin D intake will be beneficial in preventing or treating COVID-19".
"We strongly warn against doses above the upper limit and, certainly, very high doses of vitamin D, unless under the personal / clinical medical guidance of a qualified health professional," the researchers wrote in the statement.
The report also notes that there are several health risks associated with these supplements, including reduced kidney function.
However, if the new research shows that there is something to be done, it could become a cheap, easy and virtually risk-free form of treatment, Lau said.
"If this is important, we can ensure that everyone is adequately supplemented or has adequate levels of vitamin D without much risk to these patients," he added.
STUDIES URGENTLY WAIT FOR RESULTS
With experts warning that a potential second wave of COVID-19 is expected to occur in the fall or earlier, and without an imminent vaccine, the timing of this research is crucial.
"All measures that we can try to improve the condition of these patients will have significant economic and health significance," said Montano-Loza. "We need to explore any other possibilities in parallel with drug development and vaccine development."
Most studies are predicted to end in the fall, although one being made in France aims to be completed in July.
Despite the positive signs, Montano-Loza strongly recommends that people do not take excessive amounts of vitamin D in an attempt to protect themselves against the virus.
"The recommendation is to continue normal supplementation according to current guidelines," he said.