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Why coronavirus is so much worse for smokers

Published Apr 9th, 2020 1:24PM EDT
coronavirus smoking
Image: Keystone-SDA/Shutterstock

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  • Coronavirus attacks vulnerable pathways in the lungs of smokers and patients with COPD, a new study suggests.
  • Those with COPD or who currently smoke have a greater amount of an enzyme that coronavirus uses as an “entry point.”
  • Quitting smoking lowers the amount of this enzyme in the lungs and could help prevent serious COVID-19 complications.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

The novel coronavirus pandemic

has affected individuals of all ages, races, and backgrounds, but some experience far more serious symptoms than others. Determining what risk factors play the biggest role in the severity of a COVID-19 infection is paramount to saving lives, and new research suggests a reason why smokers and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are at a much higher risk of serious infections.

The research, which was led by Dr. Janice Leung of the University of British Columbia and St. Paul’s Hosptial, focuses on a molecule called ACE-2. ACE-2 (which stands for angiotensin converting enzyme II) is believed to act like an open doorway for coronavirus to infect lung cells, and new data suggests that smokers and those with COPD have far more of these “entry points” in their lungs than those with healthy lungs.

If the lungs of a COVID-19 patient are more vulnerable to the virus, more damage is likely to result, and the health outcome could change dramatically. Based on data our of China, it looks like that’s exactly what is happening.

“The data emerging from China suggested that patients with COPD were at higher risk of having worse outcomes from COVID-19,” Dr. Leung explains. “We hypothesized that this could be because the levels of ACE-2 in their airways might be increased compared to people without COPD, which could possibly make it easier for the virus to infect the airway.”

In testing lung samples of individuals with COPD and comparing them against individuals without the disease, the researchers found that levels of ACE-2 were indeed higher in COPD patients. On top of that, those who were smokers also had higher levels of the enzyme, even if they didn’t have COPD.

Generally speaking, smokers know that smoking is bad for them and that their lungs are one of the primary organs affected by their cigarette use, but knowing that the combination of smoking and COVID-19 might claim their lives sooner rather than later will hopefully serve as a bit of added motivation to kick the habit.

The good news is that the levels of ACE-2 in former smokers were the same as those who never smoked, suggesting that quitting smoking can effectively decrease your risk of serious coronavirus complications.

“We also found that former smokers had similar levels of ACE-2 to people who had never smoked,” Dr. Leung says. “This suggests that there has never been a better time to quit smoking to protect yourself from COVID-19.”