Their “bonus” protection may cut the risk of dying for millions, say scientists. Over-45s already on the cholesterol busters before the pandemic were less likely to lose their lives to the virus than those not taking them, a major study found.
Researchers said people using statins could be reassured they did not increase health risks ‑ and may actually have a protective effect.
Around eight million people in the UK take the daily medication which became known as a miracle worker for its dramatic impact in cutting heart attacks and strokes, with few side effects.
Statins work by reducing “bad” LDL-cholesterol in users’ blood. During the pandemic, there has been wide debate among scientists and doctors on whether the drugs influence the risk of dying from coronavirus.
The research in Sweden is the largest population study of its kind so far, looking at statins and Covid.
It gathered data from more than 963,000 over-45s in the capital Stockholm, checking prescription records and Covid deaths between March and November last year.
Rita Bergqvist, a medical student at Karolinska Institutet University and co-lead author of the study, said: “We compared individuals who were on statin treatment during the year before the pandemic outbreak in Stockholm with people who weren’t.
“We adjusted for a large range of other factors and then looked at the mortality rate. Individuals who were on statins were slightly less likely to die from Covid-19 than those who weren’t.”
Just under one in five people in the study were taking statins. They were found to be around 12 percent less likely to die from the virus, after accounting for factors such as existing health conditions.
The trend was consistent across different age groups and sexes.
Ms Bergqvist stressed that the study was observational and could not prove that statins caused the drop in risk.
However, she said poor heart health was a known risk factor for severe coronavirus.
She added: “We also know that statins are an important tool in preventing cardiovascular events.
“One hypothesis that has been discussed is simply that preventing cardiovascular ill-health might be beneficial if you were to be infected with Covid-19.”
However, the study does not suggest that people who were not previously taking statins should be given them if they become sick with the virus.
Ms Bergqvist said: “Prevention and treatment of active disease are two different things. That would require clinical studies of statin treatment during the disease, in hospitals for example.”
She added the main messages were patients could be reassured that statins do not increase risk, that people should continue taking them as prescribed ‑ and “if there’s a direct effect on Covid mortality then that’s an added bonus”.
Viktor Ahlqvist, the study co-lead author and a doctoral student in the Institutet’s department of global public health, said: “All in all, our findings support the continued use of statins for conditions such as cardiovascular disease and high levels of blood lipids in line with current recommendations during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Dr Peter Penson, from the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University, said statins were used widely to reduce the production of cholesterol in the liver but they also have other biological effects such as reducing inflammation.
He added: “Investigators have therefore suggested that statins may have beneficial effects in a range of conditions, including Covid-19.
“These results cannot tell us whether statins caused a reduction in death, nor can they tell us whether statins could be used to treat Covid-19 (although other trials are ongoing to address this question directly).
“However, the results provide reassurance that for most patients, it is likely to be safe to continue statin therapy to prevent cardiovascular disease during the pandemic.
“This is especially important because patients with cardiovascular diseases appear to be at high risk of complications from Covid-19.”
Previous evidence on links between statins and Covid risk was mixed. A study of 14,000 hospital patients with the virus in China found those who took statins were 42 percent less likely to die. Other studies found no association.
Tim Chico, a consultant cardiologist and professor at the University of Sheffield who was not involved in the research, said there had been debate because statins cut inflammation in blood vessels and the virus causes inflammation.
He agreed that the results did not mean Covid patients should be prescribed statins.“This study does suggest statins are safe in COVID-19, which is reassuring but was never really in question. These results do not in any way justify using statins to treat COVID-19.”
Prof Chico added: “We already have effective ways to lower risk of death in COVID-19: social distancing, hand washing, mask-wearing and vaccination in the population and use of techniques and drugs with a good evidence base, like dexamethasone, in people with severe Covid-19 infections.”
The findings were published in the peer-reviewed weekly journal PLOS Medicine.