Covid-19 is far more likely to kill you if you’re old. One reason is that aged immune systems struggle to cope with infections and recover from them. So why not try drugs that make bodies young again? That’s the bold idea now being explored in clinical trials around the world, which are testing drugs that reverse the impacts of age on the body, rejuvenate the immune system and clear out aged, worn-out cells.
Some scientists avoid using the term “anti-aging” because of its snake oil connotations—but these drugs specifically target the biology of aging. It makes intuitive sense to use them to help older bodies fight back against any infection. These drugs could potentially help anyone with a worn-out immune system—whether as a result of age, childhood disease, or chronic illness.
We certainly need a new way of treating the disease. Covid-19 might never go away. Even in countries with high levels of immunity, it’s still hospitalizing and killing people. But only a handful of effective treatments have been found, including antiviral, antibody, and steroid drugs—and these might not work as well against future variants.
And age not only raises someone’s chances of getting seriously ill with covid-19 but also increases the risk of developing long covid. If these drugs work, the hope is that they could potentially help treat that, too.
Age withers the immune system in many ways. Older people are more likely to die from infections like the flu, and aged immune systems don’t tend to respond as strongly to vaccines. Some immune cells appear to become weaker, and less able to kill harmful viruses or bacteria. Others appear to be more easily triggered into action and maintain higher levels of damaging inflammation even when there is no infection, which can damage body tissues.
This degradation of the immune system is also thought to occur in younger people who are biologically old, meaning they have body systems that function more like those of older people than others of the same age. Conditions tha...