Covid Scientists Find a Turning Point in Life-Threatening Cases

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  • Bloomberg QuickTake: Now published this video item, entitled “Covid Scientists Find a Turning Point in Life-Threatening Cases” – below is their description.

    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. When two brothers fell critically ill with Covid-19 around the same time in March, their doctors were baffled. Both were young — 29 and 31 years old — and healthy. Yet within days they couldn’t breathe on their own and, tragically, one of them died. Two weeks later, when a second pair of Covid-stricken brothers, both in their 20s, also appeared in the Netherlands, geneticists were called in to investigate. What they uncovered was a path leading from severe cases, genetic variations, and gender differences to a loss of immune function that may ultimately yield a new approach to treating thousands of coronavirus patients. 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. “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.” The work highlights the potential for interferon-based therapies to enlarge a slowly accumulating range of Covid-19 treatments. These include Gilead Sciences Inc.’s remdesivir and convalescent plasma, a component of the blood of recovered patients that may contain beneficial immune factors. These treatments provide limited benefit and are typically used in very sick, hospitalized patients. The possibility that interferon may help some people is enticing because it appears most efficacious in the early stages of infection, when life-threatening respiratory failure could still be averted. Dozens of studies of interferon treatment are now recruiting Covid-19 patients. “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,” said 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. Being male, elderly, and having underlying medical conditions can all raise patients’ risk of life-threatening Covid-19. But even within these groups, disease severity varies widely. Scientists have speculated other factors influence susceptibility, including pre-existing levels of inflammation and immunity, the amount of virus that starts an infection, and patients’ genetic makeup. Some people are known to have trouble fighting infections because they make antibodies that deactivate their own interferon. On Thursday, a global consortium of researchers said such immune reactions to the protein could account for life-threatening Covid-19 pneumonia in at least 2.6% of women and 12.5% of men. Interferon-blocking antibodies appeared in 101 of 987 patients with severe disease, but none of 663 people with an asymptomatic or mild case, according to the study in Science. Patients over age 65 were also more likely than younger ones to have the autoimmune abnormality, which was “clinically silent until the patients were infected with SARS-CoV-2,” the group of more than 100 scientists said. The two sets of brothers had inherited a gene mutation that impaired the interferon response, keeping their immune systems from fighting the coronavirus until it had replicated for days. The men’s mutations are rare — occurring in 1 in 10,000 people — and an unlikely explanation for the vast majority of severe Covid-19 cases. But the studies in Science indicate that various forms of interferon dysfunction may underlie as many as 14% of critical patients, and that screening and targeted treatment might prevent severe illnesses and deaths. “If we manage to get them into our university medical center early enough,” Hoischen said, “our clinicians may be able to treat them with interferons.”

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    In This Story: COVID-19

    Covid-19 is the official WHO name given to the novel coronavirus which broke out in late 2019 and began to spread in the early months of 2020.

    Symptoms of coronavirus

    The main symptoms of coronavirus are:

    • a persistent new cough (non productive, dry)
    • a high temperature (e.g. head feels warm to the touch)
    • shortness of breath (if this is abnormal for the individual, or increased)

    Latest News about Covid-19

    Below are stories from around the globe related to the 2020 outbreak of novel Coronavirus – since the WHO gave the Covid-19 naming. Most recent items are posted nearest the top.

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