With the number of COVID-19 deaths still rising, the race to find effective treatments continues.

According to newly published research out of New York City, a combination of zinc and hydroxychloroquine may be a cost-effective way to reduce in-hospital mortality among COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Jennifer A Frontera, a neuro-critical care specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center and a lead author on the study, discussed these findings in her keynote address at the virtual American Academy of Neurology conference last month.

Zinc is a mineral normally found in low levels in human cells. Previous research has shown that zinc can help boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and in some cases, stop the spread of viruses.

Zinc has also been shown to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-1, according to Frontera. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2.

During the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, Frontera and her colleagues at four hospitals in New York City collectively decided to see if adding zinc to their treatment regimens helped novel coronavirus patients. The physicians knew they needed something to help the patients absorb high enough levels of zinc to be effective, and at the time, many of their patients happened to be taking just the thing: hydroxychloroquine.

Among other things, hydroxychloroquine is an ionophore, a lipid soluble compound that can help zinc cross the plasma membrane. There are several other ionophores, including resveratrol, pyrithione, and quercetin.

“Since a lot of our patients got hydroxychloroquine by protocol early in the pandemic, we protocolized adding zinc to [their treatment],” Frontera said.

Nearly 3,500 hospitalized COVID-19 patients were included in their study. The median age was 64 years and just over half were male.

One thousand patients received a treatment of hydroxychloroquine and zinc and 2,500 (controls) did not. Exclusion criteria included death or discharge within 24 hours, comfort-care status, admittance into another clinical trial, and treatment that included an IL-6 inhibitor or Remdesivir. Patients in the treatment group received 400 mg of zinc gluconate by mouth on day one of the trial and 200 mg twice a day thereafter.

Frontera explained the treatment was supposed to last five days, but median duration ended up being three days.

The researchers found a 24 percent reduction in mortality in the patients that received zinc with hydroxychloroquine compared with controls.

If zinc was prescribed alone, it showed no benefit. And the doctors found hydroxychloroquine to be harmful to patients when prescribed alone.

“So, it was really the combination where you could boost intracellular zinc levels that was efficacious in terms of reducing mortality,” Frontera said.

These findings are particularly important, the authors write, because this treatment method is less expensive other COVID-19 treatments currently under investigation.