'Breakthrough finding' reveals why certain Covid-19 patients die

Josh Dutton
·News Reporter
·2-min read

New research into the novel coronavirus might have determined why certain people become gravely ill from Covid-19 while others don’t.

Coronavirus has killed more than 1.3 million people globally, according to Johns Hopkins University data, while there has been more than 53.7 million official cases around the world since the pandemic began.

A study undertaken by an international consortium of researchers named the Covid Human Genetic Effort has been published in Science magazine and may have determined why some people become more ill from coronavirus than others.

Scientists studied 987 patients with life-threatening pneumonia with 101 of them – about 10 per cent – found to have antibodies or autoantibodies which block immune system proteins called interferons.

Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, described interferons to NBC as “like a fire alarm and a sprinkler system all in one”.

They are the first line of defence against infection.

Doctors care for a Covid-19 patient in the ICU ward at Timone Hospital in Marseille, France.
A patient with coronavirus is treated at Timone Hospital in Marseille, France. Source: Getty Images

More than 660 other patients, who showed mild symptoms or were asymptomatic, didn’t have the antibodies which blocked the important interferons.

The science could go some way to explaining why Covid-19 is more deadly for males with 95 of the 101 patients with life-threatening antibodies all men. All were between 25 and 87 years old with about half of them over 65.

“These findings provide a first explanation for the excess of men among patients with life-threatening Covid-19 and the increase in risk with age,” researchers wrote.

“They also provide a means of identifying individuals at risk of developing life-threatening Covid-19 and ensuring their enrolment in vaccine trials.”

The patients that fared worse had neutralising antibodies that hindered the immune system's response. Source: Science
The patients that fared worse had neutralising antibodies that hindered the immune system's response. Source: Science

Dr Eric Topol, executive vice president for research at Scripps Research in San Diego, told NBC the study is a “breakthrough”.

"This is one of the most important things we've learned about the immune system since the start of the pandemic," he said.

He wasn’t involved in the study.

Paul Bastard, the study's lead author, added the antibodies never caused issues until the patients fell ill with Covid-19.

He’s now questioning whether the antibodies might increase the risk of people falling ill from influenza and other viruses.

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