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Could EPO be used to treat COVID-19?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Germany say EPO could be used to treat the coronavirus

After case studies of COVID-19, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, Germany, believe that erythropoietin (EPO) could be used to treat COVID-19 patients. A go-to for many dopers in endurance sports, EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells, which can help with oxygen supply in a user’s brain and muscles. The team of Mac Planck researchers are planning a clinical trial to take a more in-depth look at EPO and its effects on the coronavirus, and they have outlined their reasoning in an article on the institute’s website. 

EPO and COVID-19

The German team of researchers cite a COVID-19 case from Iran which occurred in March. The patient was infected with the coronavirus, but doctors noted that they also had “poor blood values.” To combat this, the patient was prescribed EPO in addition to the regular care for COVID-19. Just a week after starting the EPO treatment, the patient was well enough to return home. 

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Researchers also point to South American populations that live at high altitudes, where severe illnesses are rarer than in lower regions. The Mac Planck Institute team writes that this “may be because people living at higher altitudes form more EPO and are better adapted to oxygen deficiency because they have more red blood cells.”

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According to the article, experiments on animals have shown that EPO affects parts of the brain stem and spinal cord that control breathing. “As a result,” the researchers write, “breathing improves when there is an oxygen deficiency. EPO also has an anti-inflammatory effect on immune cells and could thus attenuate the frequently exaggerated immune response in COVID-19 patients.”

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Dr. Hannelore Ehrenreich, one of the researchers on the German team, notes the importance of determining whether EPO could be an effective treatment for the coronavirus.

“Because COVID-19 can have such severe health-related consequences, we must investigate any evidence of a protective effect of EPO,” Ehrenreich says. “After all, there is currently neither a vaccine nor a medication for the disease. We are therefore preparing a ‘proof-of-concept study’ to investigate the effect of EPO on COVID-19 in humans.” The clinical trial will see “severely ill” COVID-19 patients receiving EPO to see if it can “alleviate severe disease progression.”

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An excuse for dopers? 

Following the release of the Max Planck article, running coach Steve Magness tweeted, “Just waiting for … some athlete or coach trying to get a TUE for taking EPO for a mild COVID case.” TUE stands for Therapeutic Use Exemption, which allows athletes to use banned substances for legitimate medical reasons. Magness’s tweet had the feel of a joke, but there’s a ring of truth to it. Dopers will do a lot to get away with cheating, and if using EPO to treat COVID-19 becomes a widespread treatment, some athletes might actually take advantage of it.