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Why Some Get Bad COVID, and Others Don't—Discovered

Two landmark studies have identified how COVID gets around our immune response.
woman wearing face mask in clinic ward recovering from coronavirus disease.

With more than 200,000 COVID-related deaths in America, it's clear the virus is sneaky, going around our immune systems like a bike messenger during rush hour. But why do some people get far, far sicker than others? "From the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists baffled by the disease's ferocity have wondered whether the body's vanguard virus fighter, a molecular messenger called type I interferon, is missing in action in some severe cases. Two papers published online in Science this week confirm that suspicion. They reveal that in a significant minority of patients with serious COVID-19, the interferon response has been crippled by genetic flaws or by rogue antibodies that attack interferon itself," reports Science. "Together these two papers explain nearly 14% of severe COVID-19 cases. That is quite amazing," says Qiang Pan- Hammarström, an immunologist at the Karolinska Institute. Read on to see how this affects you, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

Patients Have an "Impaired Interferon Response'

Scientists studied a series of brothers who got ill with COVID—some died. "The common thread in the research is the lack of a substance called interferon that helps orchestrate the body's defense against viral pathogens and can be infused to treat conditions such as infectious hepatitis," reports Bloomberg. "Now, increasing evidence suggests that a significant minority of Covid-19 patients get very ill because of an impaired interferon response. Twin landmark studies published Thursday in the journal Science showed that insufficient interferon may lurk at a dangerous turning point in SARS-CoV-2 infections."

"It looks like this virus has one big trick," said Shane Crotty, a professor in the Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California. "That big trick is to avoid the initial innate immune response for a significant period of time and, in particular, avoid an early type-1 interferon response."

"There has never been any infectious disease explained at this level by a factor in the human body. And it's not an isolated cohort of Europeans. Patients are from all over the world, all ethnicities," said co-author Isabelle Meyts, a pediatric immunologist at the University Hospitals Leuven, who "was struck by one paper's finding that rogue antibodies underlie COVID-19 in 10% of gravely ill patients," reports Science. " Another finding, that 94% of the patients with interferon-attacking antibodies were male, also helps explain why men face higher risk of severe disease."

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If Identified Early, Lives Could be Saved

If scientists can identify this issue early on and interfere early, lives could be saved.

"'We think timing may be essential because it's only in the very early phase one can really battle the virus particles and defend against infection,' Alexander Hoischen, head of the genomic technologies and immuno-genomics group at Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen that analyzed the DNA of the two sets of brothers," told Bloomberg. As for yourself: To keep yourself and others free from COVID-19, before it strikes, wear a mask, avoid crowds, wash your hands and don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.