What are considerations for using ACE inhibitors (ACEIs) and ARBs in patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

Updated: Jun 25, 2021
  • Author: David J Cennimo, MD, FAAP, FACP, FIDSA, AAHIVS; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Answer

SARS-CoV-2 is known to utilize angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors for entry into target cells. [304] Data are limited concerning whether to continue or discontinue drugs that inhibit the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS), namely angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEIs) and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs). 

The first randomized study to compare continuing vs stopping (ACEIs) or ARBs receptor for patients with COVID-19 has shown no difference in key outcomes between the 2 approaches. A similar 30-day mortality rate was observed for patients who continued and those who suspended ACE inhibitor/ARB therapy, at 2.8% and 2.7%, respectively (hazard ratio, 0.97). [305]  

The BRACE Corona trial design further explains the 2 hypotheses. [305]  

  • One hypothesis suggests that use of these drugs could be harmful by increasing the expression of ACE2 receptors (which the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to gain entry into cells), thus potentially enhancing viral binding and viral entry.
  • The other suggests that ACE inhibitors and ARBs could be protective by reducing production of angiotensin II and enhancing the generation of angiotensin 1-7, which attenuates inflammation and fibrosis and therefore could attenuate lung injury.

Concern arose regarding appropriateness of continuation of ACEIs and ARBs in patients with COVID-19 after early reports noted an association between disease severity and comorbidities such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, which are often treated with ACEIs and ARBs. The reason for this association remains unclear. [306, 307]

The speculated mechanism for detrimental effect of ACEIs and ARBs is related to ACE2. It was therefore hypothesized that any agent that increases expression of ACE2 could potentially increase susceptibility to severe COVID-19 by improving viral cellular entry; [307] however, physiologically, ACE2 also converts angiotensin 2 to angiotensin 1-7, which leads to vasodilation and may protect against lung injury by lowering angiotensin 2 receptor binding. [306, 308] It is therefore uncertain whether an increased expression of ACE2 receptors would worsen or mitigate the effects of SARS-CoV-2 in human lungs.

Vaduganathan et al note that data in humans are limited, so it is difficult to support or negate the opposing theories regarding RAAS inhibitors. They offer an alternate hypothesis that ACE2 may be beneficial rather than harmful in patients with lung injury. As mentioned, ACE2 acts as a counterregulatory enzyme that degrades angiotensin 2 to angiotensin 1-7. SARS-CoV-2 not only appears to gain initial entry through ACE2 but also down-regulates ACE2 expression, possibly mitigating the counterregulatory effects of ACE2. [309]

There are also conflicting data regarding whether ACEIs and ARBs increase ACE2 levels. Some studies in animals have suggested that ACEIs and ARBs increase expression of ACE2, [310, 311, 312] while other studies have not shown this effect. [313, 314]

As uncertainty remains regarding whether ACEIs and/or ARBs increase ACE2 expression and how this effect may influence outcomes in patients with COVID-19, cardiology societies have largely recommended against initiating or discontinuing these medications based solely on active SARS-CoV-2 infection. [315, 316]

A systematic review and meta-analysis found use of ACEIs or ARBs was not associated with a higher risk of mortality among patients with COVID-19 with hypertension or multiple comorbidities, supporting recommendations of medical societies to continue use of these agents to control underlying conditions. [317]  


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