Coronavirus: French scientists to test theory that nicotine helps body to combat Covid-19

Researchers warn against smoking but suggest chemical could block virus molecules in body

Conrad Duncan
Tuesday 28 April 2020 13:35
Coronavirus: France imposes 15-day lockdown, Macron says

French researchers are preparing to launch a human trial to test whether nicotine can help the body to combat coronavirus.

Scientists have hypothesised that the chemical, which is contained in cigarettes, could influence whether or not coronavirus molecules are able to attach themselves to receptors in the body.

The trial will involve groups of healthcare workers and patients, some wearing nicotine patches and others wearing placebo patches, who will be tested to see if there is a difference in how their bodies respond to Covid-19.

It follows a French study of public health data which appeared to show that smokers were 80 per cent less likely to catch the coronavirus than non-smokers of the same age and sex.

Explaining the hypothesis, Jean-Pierre Changeux, emeritus professor of neuroscience at France’s Pasteur Institute, said: “You have the virus which arrives on the receptor, and the nicotine blocks that, and they separate.”

Mr Changeux co-authored the study with Zahir Amoura, a professor at Paris’ Pitie-Salpetriere University Hospital, and both scientists will be conducting the trial, which will begin in about three weeks.

Mr Amoura said the trial’s most important findings could come from the testing on a sample group of 1,500 health professionals, who will be assessed to see if wearing the nicotine patches makes them more resistant to infection.

“That could give us a way to reduce the spread of the virus,” he added.

A further 400 people who have been hospitalised with coronavirus symptoms will be given similar testing to understand if nicotine alters the progress of the disease.

However, the researchers were keen to stress that they did not want their research to encourage people to take up smoking, which has its own harmful effects on health.

“That would be catastrophic,” Mr Changuex said.

Scientists have already warned people to not smoke after the publication of the first study because smokers who contract coronavirus are more likely to develop severe symptoms and require intensive care treatment than non-smokers.

Professor John Britton, the director of the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies, told The Independent last week that the trial was “interesting” but insisted people who smoke should still be encouraged to quit.

In France, sales of nicotine substitutes have been limited to prevent misuse or overuse and to avoid a shortage of products such as nicotine patches and gum.

The French health ministry has banned online sales of nicotine products and limited their sale in pharmacies to only one month’s supply, with a register taken of everyone who purchases them.

“A team of French researchers has written an interesting scientific article which tends to show that there are fewer patients in the population consuming nicotine, and therefore smokers, than in the rest of the population,” Olivier Veran, the health minister, told France's parliament.

“But beware, this does not mean that tobacco protects. Tobacco kills.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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