Experts Explain how Understanding Immune Responses Could Save the Lives of Those Affected by COVID-19

Researchers all over the world are hard at work trying to develop both treatments for Covid-19 and vaccines for the illness. Professors of rheumatology at the University of Alabama, Randy Cron and Winn Chatham, are trying to spread the word of a simple test which could save lives.

Studies from China have shown that in many of the fatal cases patients may have succumbed to a cytokine storm, not the illness itself. This condition has a simple, cheap test, and an array of existing treatments. What we need is for the medical community to be aware of this potential condition in Covid-19 patients and test them early.

So what is a cytokine storm?

A cytokine storm, in simple terms, is an overzealous immune response. It is normally caused by factors in the host such as subtle genetic mutations that the patient didn’t even know they had.

There are various cytokine storm syndromes but they all have the same pathology. It ultimately can lead to acute respiratory distress and fatal multi-organ dysfunction syndrome or MODS. However, if treated, the death rate is as low as 27%.

How do we test for it?

So how do we know if people have a cytokine storm? It’s a simple serum ferritin blood test. This test is quick and easy. It’s also readily available and cheap. Dr. Cron and Dr. Chatham are recommending that all Covid 19 patients who have the illness so severe that they must be hospitalized, should be given the test. In China, many hospitalized patients who had high fevers were found to have elevated serum ferritin.

How do we treat it?

There are two primary ways cytokine storms can be treated. First, corticosteroids which suppress the entire immune system can be used. These are also inexpensive and readily available. However, it can be dangerous to suppress the entire immune system of a patient who is fighting a serious illness.

There are also more targeted medicines that attack just one or a few inflammatory molecules. This way the entire immune system isn’t being suppressed. Instead, certain molecules, including cytokines, are affected.

In China, IL-6 has had successful outcomes. However, more research is needed to uncover which specific treatment would be most effective for Covid-19. Other options include IL-1 and IL-18.

The outlook

We’ve all heard the outlook about Covid-19. There are estimates that millions of people could contract the illness across the world.  Partly, this is due to the fact that many patients are asymptomatic for some time, continuing to spread the virus before they know they have it. In fact, 80% of patients have documented very minimal early symptoms.

But, if we take these scholars advice and spread the word of this test and treatment, we could save thousands of lives of those most severely affected.

You can read more about cytokine storms and their treatment here.


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