Coronavirus: Study suggests why some people react more severely to COVID-19 than others

Coronavirus death toll figures reflect just how hard it is to make policy decisions based on predictive models. Take the UK daily death toll, for example. From Saturday to Monday, the death toll dropped day on day, which suggests the social distancing measures are working. The last 24 hours, however, saw the biggest daily rise in the UK since the pandemic began.


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This uncertainty not only makes for difficult policy decisions but it also invites the question many of us fear the most: if I am to catch COVID-19, how badly will it affect me?

There are, of course, a number of important factors to consider when answering this question, such as the state of your general health.

Research does suggest one explanation as to why some people react more severely to the pathogen, however.

It may also shed light on why seemingly fit and healthy people have died from COVID-19 complications.

A study published on January 24 in The Lancet medical journal identified what it called a “cytokine storm” in infected patients who were severely ill.

A cytokine storm is an overproduction of immune cells and their activating compounds (cytokines), which, in a flu infection, is often associated with a surge of activated immune cells into the lungs.

The resulting lung inflammation and fluid buildup can lead to respiratory distress and can be contaminated by a secondary bacterial pneumonia.

This overactive immune response can be seriously life-threatening.

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It may help to explain why younger people have died from the virus.

For example, in 2006, six healthy young men were left in intensive care with multiple organ failure as a result of an out-of-control cytokine immune response during a preclinical trial of a new kind of drug.

This reaction happened just 90 minutes after receiving a dose of the drug.

It also offers a working theory as to why statistics from China show some people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who were not known to have had prior medical issues, have also died from the disease.


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Is there anything I can do to reduce my risk of catching COVID-19?

The most important measure is to stay at home to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

The policy prescription is based on what is currently understood about COVID-19.

The virus spreads in droplets, like other respiratory infections, so it is important to limit your contact with other people.

As the NHS explains, you should only leave your home for very limited purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible
  • One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • Any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling for work purposes, but only where you cannot work from home

As the health site explains, these reasons are exceptions, and, even when doing these activities, you should be minimising time spent outside of the home.

It is also imperative to stand two metres apart from anyone outside of your household.

There are also things you can do to help reduce the risk of you and anyone you live with getting ill with coronavirus.

The NHS says to wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds.

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