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The Emerging Science of What SARS-CoV-2 Does to the Human Body

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2020

Thousands of scientific research papers on Covid-19 and SARS-CoV-2 are being published each week and with them comes a clearer picture of the virus and the disease it causes. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but this piece from Science magazine is the best synthesis of the emerging science that I have read. It details a virus that “acts like no microbe humanity has ever seen” and affects not only the lungs but also the kidneys, heart, brain, and the intestines.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 surges past 2.2 million globally and deaths surpass 150,000, clinicians and pathologists are struggling to understand the damage wrought by the coronavirus as it tears through the body. They are realizing that although the lungs are ground zero, its reach can extend to many organs including the heart and blood vessels, kidneys, gut, and brain.

“[The disease] can attack almost anything in the body with devastating consequences,” says cardiologist Harlan Krumholz of Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital, who is leading multiple efforts to gather clinical data on COVID-19. “Its ferocity is breathtaking and humbling.”

Understanding the rampage could help the doctors on the front lines treat the fraction of infected people who become desperately and sometimes mysteriously ill. Does a dangerous, newly observed tendency to blood clotting transform some mild cases into life-threatening emergencies? Is an overzealous immune response behind the worst cases, suggesting treatment with immune-suppressing drugs could help? What explains the startlingly low blood oxygen that some physicians are reporting in patients who nonetheless are not gasping for breath? “Taking a systems approach may be beneficial as we start thinking about therapies,” says Nilam Mangalmurti, a pulmonary intensivist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).

How Covid-19 attacks the human body

I’ve been hearing that although Covid-19’s attack begins in the lungs, it is as much a vascular disease as it is a respiratory disease — and there is some evidence emerging to support this view:

If COVID-19 targets blood vessels, that could also help explain why patients with pre-existing damage to those vessels, for example from diabetes and high blood pressure, face higher risk of serious disease. Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on hospitalized patients in 14 U.S. states found that about one-third had chronic lung disease-but nearly as many had diabetes, and fully half had pre-existing high blood pressure.

Mangalmurti says she has been “shocked by the fact that we don’t have a huge number of asthmatics” or patients with other respiratory diseases in HUP’s ICU. “It’s very striking to us that risk factors seem to be vascular: diabetes, obesity, age, hypertension.”

What struck me most about this piece is the sheer energy of the vast network of minds bent towards understanding this thing with the hope of beating it as soon as possible. This is the scientific method at work right here, in all its urgent & messy glory.