CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Data Science are looking at information regarding a heartburn medication and COVID-19.

According to a release, doctors in China noticed early on in the pandemic that many of the elderly patients who were surviving the virus were poor, which was not expected.

In reviewing the records of these patients, the doctors found that many suffered from chronic heartburn and were treating it with an inexpensive drug called famotidine, which can be found in Pepcid.

Wealthier patients tended to take a different, more expensive, heartburn medication called omeprazole, which is found in Prilosec.

Biomedical engineering professor Phil Bourne, says that anecdotal reports or things that are mentioned in passing in a particular research paper are what provide a hook, thus beginning medical studies.

Normally, to see if a drug may be effective as a treatment, prospective clinical trials have to be developed, but this process can take years and that is likely to not be the best option when dealing with a pandemic like COVID-19.

Instead, Bourne and others worked with an international team of researchers to look at information from a database of medical records for millions of COVID-19 patients from 30 countries.

The release says the researchers narrowed the list down to about 22,000 people, which is the largest sample size for a study on famotidine and the virus to date.

“The power of the electronic health record, which is really yet to be fully realized as a research tool, is that you’ve suddenly got all this data you can mine to see whether what you determined in passing or anecdotally has any basis,” Bourne said.

The analysis found that data supported findings from other smaller-scale studies.

And when used at high doses equal to about 10 Pepcid tablets, it appears famotidine improves the odds of survival for COVID-19 patients, especially when taken in combination with aspirin.

The release adds that it seems to hinder the severity of disease progression, which makes patients less likely to require intubation or a ventilator.

The next step will be to figure out why this apparent correlation works.

Researchers like Bourne look at existing information and draw upon biochemical and molecular principles to propose a theory regarding population-scale patterns that are identified.

They work backward from massive groups of people to draw possible conclusions about what is happening.

The release explains that one of the most dangerous phenomena associated with COVID-19 is called a cytokine storm, which can be a fatal amplification of an immune response.

When a person gets sick, their immune system releases inflammatory proteins called cytokines telling immune cells how to fight the infection, but in more severe illnesses, cytokine production can get out of control.

“Basically, your immune system goes haywire and starts attacking things like your otherwise healthy lung tissue because it’s so desperate to kill off the invading virus,” said Cameron Mura, a UVA senior scientist. “Your own physiology essentially uses a sledgehammer against the pathogen when a fly swatter would suffice.”

The theory is that famotidine suppresses this reaction.

Famotidine was developed to block histamine receptors that help produce acid in the stomach, but like other medications, it can have side effects and the researchers think that interfering with cytokine storms is one.

“It may well be a case of famotidine having a beneficial off-target effect,” Mura said. "We generally think of side effects as a bad thing, but in some cases, they can be harnessed to treat other conditions. In the future, it’s possible that famotidine could be repurposed in this way."

However, these findings are not conclusive, and other studies have offered conflicting ideas of what famotidine can do for COVID-19 patients.

The release says some studies have even found a neutral effect and one found a determinantal one.

“Scientific studies are sometimes viewed as the end-all, be-all, but they’re really just a starting point or a springboard,” Mura said. “Any good study raises more questions than it answers, and data science is often what kick-starts that process.”

This study may help lay the groundwork needed to produce further research of the effects of the drug, when combined with aspirin, on COVID-19 patients.

The findings have been published in the journal Signal Transduction and Targeted Therapy.