UnitedHealth launching clinical trial to test impact of ACE inhibitors on COVID-19 

UnitedHealth is spearheading a digital clinical trial to potentially repurpose a class of hypertension drugs to treat high-risk COVID-19 cases. 

Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are a common treatment for hypertension, and early in the pandemic there was significant concern in the clinical community that these drugs would make the virus worse, to the point docs were briefly urged to take patients off of these medications. 

That fear led researchers at UnitedHealth Group to investigate further, said Deneen Vojta, M.D., executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group research and development, on a call with reporters Tuesday. 

“We believed and we still believe that this hypothesis should be rigorously investigated before endorsing any change in the patient’s care,” Vojta said. 

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The healthcare giant reached out to experts at Yale School of Medicine to harness its wealth of claims to data to study the impact of ACE inhibitors on COVID-19 more in-depth. And the analysts found that it may, instead, offer a promising treatment for high-risk patients. 

The researchers analyzed data (PDF) on 10,000 people enrolled in either Medicare Advantage (MA) or commercial plans through UnitedHealthcare and who were taking one or more medications for hypertension. 

They found that MA members taking ACE inhibitors saw their risk of hospitalization due to COVID-19 reduced by nearly 40%. The drug was not, however, linked to a lower mortality risk for those who were hospitalized. 

Harlan Krumholz, M.D., director of the Yale-New Haven Center for Outcomes Research, said the results are promising—especially as ACE inhibitors are cheap and widely available. 

“We found something that gave us hope and was interesting and intriguing, but we know there’s a lot more to jump through,” he said. 

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To further test these results, UnitedHealth will be launching a fully virtual clinical trial. Vojta said the company is well into the planning stages and expects to have things up and running in the next three to four weeks. 

The trial will be open to volunteers nationwide at unitedinresearch.com, and interested UnitedHealthcare members can be processed for eligibility quickly as the insurer already has a wealth of data on them. 

Vojta said the team is hoping to conduct the research as quickly as possible to accelerate access to ACE inhibitors as a treatment, if possible. 

"We believe that we can get his trial done quickly,” she said.