Vitamin D is involved in the regulation of some 200 genes, many of which are involved in the body’s defence against general infection and the regulation of inflammation.

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Two Montreal researchers suspect the well-documented anti-inflammatory properties of vitamin D could make it an important addition to the medical arsenal against COVID-19, and have decided to study it further.

The PROTECT study is being overseen by Francine Ducharme of Sainte-Justine Hospital and Cécile Tremblay of the CHUM hospital centre.

“Is this a valid approach? Is it efficient? If it is efficient, perfect, that’s another string in our bow,” Ducharme said. “Theoretically, there’s a chance it would work, but we have to prove it.”

The study will try to determine if large doses of vitamin D could diminish the risk of infection among those not yet infected with the coronavirus, and reduce the duration and intensity of the illness among those who are already infected.

The study will also examine the potential impact of vitamin D on the response to vaccines.

The researchers want to recruit 2,414 health care workers in the Montreal area, since they run a higher risk of infection. Up until now, up to 20 per cent of recorded COVID-19 cases in Canada since the start of the pandemic have been among health care workers.

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Many studies have concluded that vitamin D has a protective effect against viral infections such as the common cold and influenza.

“There is a preventive effect of about 10 to 20 per cent which has been shown, so we reduce…the risk that a person develops the common cold,” said Ducharme. “The question is, will it work with COVID?”

Ducharme notes also that since people with a severe form of COVID-19 exhibit an inordinate inflammatory response, “the anti-inflammatory properties of vitamin D may help.”

Vitamin D is involved in the regulation of some 200 genes, many of which are involved in the body’s defence against general infection and the regulation of inflammation.

The study has been adapted to the context of the pandemic, with those taking part being able to participates from their homes. For one of the very first times, everything can be done from a distance.

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The researchers also benefit from the availability of new vaccines against the coronavirus, allowing them to determine what contribution vitamin D could make to a vaccination campaign.

“It’s all the more interesting and important given that with the ‘shortage’ of vaccines, we must have a longer than recommended delay (between doses),” said Ducharme. “If vitamin D has an adjuvant effect that increases protection in the interim, between doses, I think that could be very interesting.”

The study’s preliminary findings should be available in five months. Until then, the temptation to head down to the pharmacy and stock up on vitamin D isn’t advised.

Ducharme points out that studies concluding that vitamin D had a preventive or protective effect were conducted with subjects who had never or rarely consumed it.

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Furthermore, all levels of government have recommended that the public not consume vitamin D beyond the recommended daily dose.

Health Canada’s Dietary Reference Intakes for vitamin D range from 400 international units  for children less than a year old and 800 international units for those over 70.

“We don’t know whether or not it will help,” said Ducharme. “We don’t want people to rush into it. There could be side effects to taking vitamin D. It is very safe, but rushing into a vitamin when we don’t know if it will work isn’t worth it.”

The principal source of vitamin D is sunlight. It is also found in certain kinds of fish, in pasteurized, fortified cow’s milk, margarine and egg yolks.

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