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Obesity might be an even bigger coronavirus risk factor than we thought

Published Aug 26th, 2020 11:16PM EDT
Coronavirus Risk Factors
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  • Several coronavirus risk factors can lead to COVID-19 complications and death, but obesity might be even more dangerous than we first thought.
  • A new study says that overweight people who develop COVID-19 are more likely to visit the hospital and be admitted to the ICU than the rest. They’re also more likely to die of COVID-19 complications.
  • The coronavirus risks don’t end there, as obesity might lower the protection future vaccine might offer.

The novel coronavirus kills predominantly individuals who suffer from other health problems that could reduce the body’s ability to fight the virus and clear the infection. But there are exceptions to that rule, as people who were otherwise in perfect health succumbed after being infected. If you think you’re in the latter category but are overweight, then you might have two huge problems.

First of all, obesity alone is a medical condition and a risk factor for COVID-19. A new paper offers even more evidence to support the idea that obese people might fare worse after a COVID-19 infection than individuals who do not have a weight problem. Secondly, obesity can hinder vaccine efficacy once coronavirus vaccines are available, just as it happens for the flu.

The new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, via The Guardian, says that people who are obese are 113% more likely to end up in a hospital because of COVID-19. Furthermore, they are 74% more likely to be admitted to intensive care, and 48% more likely to die of COVID-19 complications than other patients.

Prof. Barry Popkin told the paper he was shocked by the findings, as the risk of death was significantly higher than initially believed. “That’s a pretty big effect, for me,” he said. “It is a 50% increase essentially. That’s a pretty high scary number. All of it is actually – much higher than I ever expected.”

“That, ICU admission and mortality are really high,” he added. “They all shocked me, to be honest.”

The scientists performed a meta-analysis of available data from various studies from around the world, including Italy, France, the UK, the US, and China.
It’s not just obesity that’s at play here, as obesity is often joined by other underlying conditions that may be directly connected to it. Medical problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes could further complicate COVID-19.

“All of these factors can influence immune cell metabolism, which determines how bodies respond to pathogens, like the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus,” study co-author Prof. Melinda Beck said. “Individuals with obesity are also more likely to experience physical ailments that make fighting this disease harder, such as sleep apnoea, which increases pulmonary hypertension, or a body mass index that increases difficulties in a hospital setting with intubation.”

Popkin further addressed vaccination for COVID-19, warning that obesity might prevent these patients from getting the most of the treatment. “We know a COVID vaccine will have a positive effect on obese people, but we suspect from all our knowledge from tests on the SARS vaccine and the flu vaccine it will have a diminished benefit compared to the others,” he said.

The professor said they had convinced the US CDC that people with obesity aren’t getting the full benefit of flu shots, and that resulted in a protocol change. Overweight people get a stronger vaccine that includes an extra shot. Popkin said COVID-19 vaccine developers should check the data for flu vaccines for obese people and ensure that the coronavirus vaccines would work better for obese people.

“We are not saying that the vaccine will be ineffective in populations with obesity, but rather that obesity should be considered as a modifying factor when conducting vaccine testing,” Beck said for the UNC paper. “Even a less protective vaccine will still offer some level of immunity.”

The scientists also explained that the socio-economic effects of the pandemic have a direct impact on diets and obesity. People are moving less than before, as a result of the guidelines that advise people to spend more time at home. On top of that, not all of them might be able to access healthy foods, or afford them, given the economic hardships that some people have been experiencing these past few months. “We’re not only at home more and experiencing more stress due to the pandemic, but we’re also not visiting the grocery store as often, which means the demand for highly processed junk foods and sugary beverages that are less expensive and more shelf-stable has increased,” Popkin says. “These cheap foods are high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat, and they’re laden with highly refined carbohydrates, which all increase the risk of not only excess weight gain but also key noncommunicable diseases.”

The expert thinks that food policy changes could impact diets and improve the chances of obese people to fight the illness. “Given the significant threat COVID-19 represents to individuals with obesity, healthy food policies can play a supportive — and especially important — role in mitigating COVID-19 mortality and morbidity,” he said

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.