A new study in the journal Nature published Wednesday suggests that differences in gender may account for why men are more likely to contract COVID-19 and are 2.4 times more likely to die from it, and is calling on the scientific community to continue study of the data.
The analysis, carried out by researchers at Yale University, followed 98 individuals with “moderate” COVID-19 who were admitted to Yale-New Haven Hospital between March 18 and May 9. None of the patients selected had been admitted to the intensive care unit or put on supplemental oxygen. Among this group, the researchers specifically looked for “sex differences” in immune responses, meaning variations in the way their bodies were fighting off the infection.
Tests uncovered “key differences” between the male and female responses. In men, the researchers noted higher levels of two immune system proteins called chemokines and cytokines — the latter of which can, in some cases, lead to a deadly immune response known as a cytokine storm. Women, on the other hand, showed a “more robust T cell response,” a type of white blood cell critical for fighting off infection.
The researchers suggest that these differences, along with a few others noted, may have implications for future research. “These data indicate key differences in the baseline immune capabilities in men and women during the early phase of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and suggest a potential immunological underpinning of the distinct mechanisms of disease progression between sexes,” the authors conclude. “These analyses also provide a potential basis for taking sex-dependent approaches to prognosis, prevention, care, and therapy for patient with COVID-19.”
Dr. Gregory Poland, an immunologist and director of the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group, says the research is too limited so far to make any conclusions, saying instead to “consider these hints.” However, he says it does align with what’s already known about gender and disease. “It’s consistent with what we know about virtually every vaccine that has been studied. Women respond better to vaccines,” Poland tells Yahoo Life. “Women do better with infectious diseases, whether it’s cold or influenza.”
Poland says that women don’t just respond better to infections and immunizations, but often prove to be more resilient than men over a wide range of challenges posed to the human body. “Under virtually all adverse conditions, women do better. They tolerate food deprivation better. They tolerate starvation better, they tolerate dehydration, they tolerate austere environments better,” says Poland. “So there is something gender-related.”
Although there is no consensus as to why women fare better than men when it comes to infectious diseases and other life-threatening environments, Poland says there are theories. One rests on the notion that “evolution has rigged it such that because women are the ones bearing and most often nurturing children, that the propagation of the species depends on the viability of women.”
But this of course does not suggest that women are somehow immune from the virus. Poland says gender — while important — is merely one facet of a kaleidoscope of risk factors and determinants of disease. Other important potential predictors, he says, are blood type, age and underlying health conditions. “People kind of approach something like this as, ‘Oh, this is the solution, this is the answer,’” Poland says. “No, it’s just one part of a very complex equation.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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