Patients with more omega-3s in blood less likely to die from COVID-19, pilot study finds

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - batuhan toker
©Getty Images - batuhan toker

Related tags: COVID-19, Fish oil supplements, EPA and DHA

Patients with the most omega-3s in their system were 75% less likely to die from COVID-19, a preliminary pilot study suggests.

The pilot study was conducted using blood drawn from 100 patients treated for COVID-19 at the prestigious Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.  The blood was analyzed using the test developed by Omega-3 Index co developer Dr. William Harris, PhD, of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota.  Harris, who is one of the paper’s coauthors, is also head of the Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI) based in Sioux Falls, SD and is founder of OmegaQuant, which did the blood analysis.

Unprecedented situation led to early publication

Harris said the research was posted on the medRχiv portal, where preliminary research is made available while it is still going through the peer review process. It’s not something he’s done before, he said.

“This is the first time I’ve posted a manuscript on a public site while it is being peer review.  This site will accept  any manuscript but with big, bold letters that it has not yet been peer reviewed and should not be used to direct treatment. But they think that the data ought to be out there for people to use,”​ Harris told NutraIngredients-USA.

“Given the COVID-19 situation in the world and what we know about the safety of omega-3s made me think it was OK to post it like this,” ​he said.

Only one patient in top omega-3s group died

The 100 patients were grouped into four quartiles according to their O3I, with an O3I of 5.7% being the cutoff for the highest quartile.  

The raw results showed that one patient in the highest quartile died, while there were 13 deaths for patients falling within the bottom three quartiles.  After a regression analysis to correct for age and sex differences, those with the highest levels of EPA and DHA in their blood were 75% less likely to die compared with those in the lower three quartiles (p=0.07). Stated another way, the relative risk for death was about four times higher in those with a lower O3I (<5.7%) compared to those with higher levels. 

Study’s conclusion needs more research to confirm

Lead author Arash Asher, MD, Director of Cancer Survivorship & Rehabilitation at Cedars-Sinai, said observers must keep the study’s limitations firmly in mind.  But he said the results are strongly suggestive, and promising.

“While not meeting standard statistical significance thresholds, this pilot study — along with multiple lines of evidence regarding the anti-inflammatory effects of EPA and DHA – strongly suggests that these nutritionally available marine fatty acids may help reduce risk for adverse outcomes in COVID-19 patients. Larger studies are clearly needed to confirm these preliminary findings,”​ he said.

Study’s approach mirrors that done with other dietary ingredients

The study is similar in nature to other preliminary research arising out of the COVID-19 crisis that suggests higher levels of vitamin D and zinc can help better arm individuals who are infected with the novel virus.  In this case, the postulated mechanism of action is the well known anti inflammatory role of higher omega-3 levels, which may have helped quell the so-called ‘cytokine storm,’ or extreme immune system reaction, observed in some severe and/or fatal COVID-19 cases.

Harris said the researchers had no access to information about the patients beyond age, sex and a few other data points.  So, potential confounding factors abound.  Nevertheless, he was surprised and excited by the results.  The study is much different from many with which he has been associated, which often involve combing through data from thousands of subjects.

“I was surprised at the results because we only had 100 subjects and I thought it would be too small to really see anything,” ​he said.  “Death is a pretty easy outcome to deal with, though.  There’s no adjudication on that.”

Source:​ medRχiv
doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.06.21249354
Blood omega-3 fatty acids and death from COVID-19: A Pilot Study
Authors:  Asher A, et al.

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