Closeup of man getting ready to take a pill with water

Diabetes type 2 is one of many underlying conditions that can contribute to severe COVID-19 illness, but a type of drug used to improve glycemic control and help with weight loss may reduce complications from the viral disease, a new study finds.

The drugs, called glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor (GLP-1R) agonists, are used to treat diabetes and obesity and include exenatide, lixisenatide, liraglutide, albiglutide, dulaglutide and semaglutide. Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine suspected that they might provide protection from severe COVID-19 due to their inflammatory properties.

Their investigation found that this may be the case. An analysis of the electronic medical records of nearly 300,000 people with diabetes type 2 and a positive SARS-CoV-2 test showed that people who took these drugs six months or more before a COVID-19 diagnosis had a 33% decreased risk of hospitalization, 38% lower risk of respiratory complications and 42% lower odds of death within 28 days than their peers who did not take the drugs.

The results suggest that treatment with GLP-1R agonists prior to hospitalization may help to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19 and type 2 diabetes, the researchers concluded.

“Further research is needed to confirm whether GLP-1R agonists can protect against severe COVID-19 complications,” said Nazia T. Raja-Khan,  “There is also a need to determine the conditions in which these drugs could be protective and how they could be used safely during COVID-19 hospitalization.”

Less than 15% of patients with type 2 diabetes in the United States use GLP-1R agonists, the researchers estimated.

A nationwide analysis in England revealed that one third of all in-hospital COVID-19-related deaths occurred in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

The study was published Monday in the journal Diabetes.