Why smokers appear to be particularly vulnerable to severe Covid-19 infections - what science says

New research from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) suggests that cigarette smokers may be more susceptible to Covid-19.

The research suggests that smoking encourages the lungs to produce more ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2), the protein that makes it so easy for the SARS-Cov-2 to adhere to and infect the cells in the body.

This research was discussed in a news release and published in the journal Developmental Cell on 16 May 2020.

The ACE2 protein in different vulnerable groups.

One thing that the researchers from CSHL noticed is the dramatic differences in how patients with Covid-19 experience their symptoms. In most cases, people experience mild illness that can be treated, but some cases require hospitalisation and may even lead to death. They also noted three vulnerable groups who seem to be more prone to severe Covid-19: men, older adults and smokers.

CSHL Fellow Jason Sheltzer and Google engineer Joan Smith wanted to investigate these differences in Covid-19 infections and looked at previous data to determine if the vulnerable groups had anything in common.

"We started gathering all the data we could find. When we put it all together and started analysing it, we saw that both mice that had been exposed to smoke in a laboratory and humans who were current smokers had significant upregulation of ACE2," explained Sheltzer.

The data didn’t suggest that age or gender directly affected the ACE2 levels in the body, but smoking influenced the level of ACE2 in the lungs, according to Sheltzer.

However, these high levels of ACE2 in smokers’ lungs seem to be temporary and quitting smoking could possibly lower the ACE2 levels.

According to Sheltzer, high ACE2 levels are produced by the so-called goblet cells – mucus-producing cells in the airway – which are often increased by smoking.

Now's the time to quit

If you are concerned about your respiratory health and you think that now is a good opportunity to quit, you can read more here for tips on how to stop.

Image credit: iStock

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