COVID-19: Doping agent could alleviate serious illnesses

Doping: With erythropoietin against COVID-19

Erythropoietin is a hormone that promotes the formation of red blood cells (erythrocytes). Epo became known to many through the doping scandals in sports. Researchers are now reporting that the doping agent could also help in the fight against severe COVID-19 disease courses.

In the fight against the disease COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, medication that has already been developed against other diseases is used, particularly in the case of serious illnesses. The doping agent Epo could also possibly be used here.

Possible protection against late neurological consequences

Erythropoietin is actually an anemia medication. But according to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, the epo, which is known to the general public as a doping agent, could also be effective for COVID-19.

According to a recent report, the growth factor could weaken severe illnesses and protect patients from late neurological consequences if the SARS-CoV-2 virus attacks the brain.

After the first case studies already point to a positive effect of Epo, the researchers are now planning a randomized clinical study to systematically investigate the effects of Epo treatment in COVID-19 sufferers.

Indications of a protective role

At the end of March, a patient with severe COVID-19 symptoms was admitted to an Iranian hospital. Because he also had poor blood values, the doctors also prescribed the hematopoietic growth factor Epo. The patient was able to leave the clinic seven days after the start of treatment.

Another indication of Epo's protective role in COVID-19 comes from the Max Planck Society (MPG) in South America. There, serious illnesses are more rare in higher regions than in the lowlands - possibly because people at higher altitudes form more epo, therefore have more red blood cells and are therefore better adapted to a lack of oxygen.

Could Epo have contributed to the rapid healing of the Iranian patient and could also be the explanation for the different frequency of the disease in South America?

Milder course of the disease due to epo?

Hannelore Ehrenreich believes this is possible. The scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine has been researching the effects of the body's growth factor for over thirty years and suspects a connection between the administration of Epo and the mild course of the disease.

"For example, we have observed that dialysis patients survive Covid-19 remarkably well - and it is precisely these patients who receive erythropoietin as part of their dialysis," explains Ehrenreich.

As the message says, Epo is released as a natural response to a lack of oxygen. The molecule stimulates the formation of red blood cells and thus improves the oxygen supply to the brain and muscles.

This effect is also used by athletes who use artificially produced epo as a doping agent. Epo not only has a stimulating effect on blood cells, but also on many other tissues.

Improved breathing in the absence of oxygen

Ehrenreich and her colleagues have now summarized the studies already available on the effects of Epo. Their results were published in the "Molecular Medicine" journal.

Experts say that animal experiments indicate that Epo acts on areas in the brainstem and spinal cord that control breathing. As a result, breathing also improves when there is a lack of oxygen. It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on immune cells and could thus weaken the frequently excessive immune response in COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, Epo could protect against neurological symptoms and late effects of the disease such as headache, dizziness, loss of taste and smell, as well as seizures.

The protective effects of Epo have been shown in animals as well as in a variety of studies in people with various brain disorders, according to the MPG. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies have only a limited interest in funding further necessary studies on approved active ingredients such as erythropoietin, for which patent protection has also expired.

“Covid-19 can have such serious health consequences that we have to investigate any evidence that Epo has a protective effect. After all, there is no vaccine or medication at the moment. We are therefore currently preparing a human study with which we want to investigate the effect of Epo on Covid-19, a so-called proof-of-concept study, ”said Ehrenreich.

In this clinical study, seriously ill COVID-19 sufferers are also to receive Epo. The scientists then want to investigate whether the growth factor can alleviate serious illnesses. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Max Planck Society: With Epo against Covid-19, (accessed: 04.07.2020), Max Planck Society
  • Hannelore Ehrenreich, Karin Weissenborn, Martin Begemann, Markus Busch, Eduard Vieta & Kamilla W. Miskowiak: Erythropoietin as candidate for supportive treatment of severe COVID-19; in: Molecular Medicine, (published: June 16, 2020), Molecular Medicine

Video: Can doping athletes take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic? TSN In Depth (January 2022).