With the coronavirus outbreak that’s currently sweeping the entire world, even saying that it’s a serious pandemic is something of an understatement. While some people are dismissing the disease as a mere flu, all medical professionals and researchers are quick to point out that it’s far more deadly than the common cold. There are two main reasons for that: one, it’s highly contagious, and two, it tends to be deadly for people already suffering from chronic medical disorders.
And unfortunately enough, this virus is forcing medical experts all around the world to constantly grapple with new problems. For instance - the issue of patients’ immune systems not properly responding to the virus and actually working to their detriment. We’ll explore this current problem below.
So, what’s the issue in question? There are plenty of examples of younger people without chronic problems being admitted to hospitals after noticing common COVID-19 traits: like a fever, constant coughing, and lung opacity. But seemingly without explanation, the symptoms become exponentially worse over the course of a few days. After examination, doctors would conclude that this worsening came to be as a result of a cytokine storm. Or, in other words, the immune system of the patient reacted badly to the virus, becoming just as dangerous as COVID-19 itself. So, how does this happen - and what are the consequences?
The Immune System
Okay, so why and how does a cytokine storm happen in the first place? In order to understand that, let’s take a brief look at how our immune system works in the first place. It all starts when an intruder is detected, like a virus or some sort of bacteria. Once that happens, your body will start signaling for aid to your immune system. And it proceeds to fight off this external threat. In the war for your health, the basic soldiers are the above mentioned cytokine molecules. They are supposed to tell the individual cells in your body how to act against the disease.
So, the basic layman’s logic that you're familiar with still stands; the stronger and better-equipped someone’s immune system is, the better they’ll be at repelling any kind of infection. In our current situation, that’s likely to be the coronavirus. This is the reason people use additives and supplements to increase the resilience of their immune system. And once your immune system proves to be victorious against the intruder, it’s programmed to become dormant again. But what if it doesn’t happen according to plan? Enter cytokine storms.
In a small, but not entirely minuscule fraction of cases (around 15%) where patients combat illness like the coronavirus, their immune system refuses to shut down once the virus has been defeated. Instead, it keeps working and producing the cytokine molecules we’ve talked about above. And when there’s no intruder to deal with, the cytokine cells proceed to attack a lot of organs, some of which are vital - such as lungs and liver. The results, as you may imagine, can be deadly. So, this is a situation in which it’s not the coronavirus that threatens your body, but your very own immune system instead.
Cytokines In The Pandemic Era
During the coronavirus media coverage, you may have heard that this is a virus that most severely affects older people and those with chronic diseases. But if you get infected and have the misfortune of suffering from a cytokine storm as a result of the infection; know that it does not discriminate by age. Regardless of how old or young you are, cytokine storms are a real threat. Research suggests that this happened during previous pandemics, from 1918 all the way to SARS and H1N1 and possibly will happen in cases of other future animal borne diseases and viruses.
However, current experiences with corona and cytokine storms also potentially point towards treatment solutions. For a patient in Paris, the physicians used tocilizumab. This is a drug you may not be familiar with, but its main purpose is to calm down an immune system that is in distress.
The Parisian we’ve mentioned above was given two doses of tocilizumab. After a single day, the patient’s fever lessened at a quick rate, the lung opacities started disappearing, and lung capacity returned to normal levels. There are other corroborating cases from both Wuhan and Italy that confirm this; tocilizumab could very well be the antidote people with cytokine storms have been searching for.
That’s why Chinese health authorities have approved tocilizumab for testing on severe COVID-19 patients, and clinical trials are already underway. And surprisingly enough, the same can be said for the United States. The FDA has provided a pharmaceutical company with the legal approval needed to start human trials with the drug as well.
But while it remains unclear what the definitive treatment is for the myriad issues appearing in coronavirus patients - cytokine problems being one of them - it’s also important to discover why the cytokine storms occur at all. So, what makes a person’s immune system go haywire and attack their own body after dealing with an external intruder? Most research points out that this is actually the result of genetic factors.
The cytokine phenomenon does come in different variations, though they all share a number of commonalities. For one, every kind of cytokine storm comes with an overload of immune molecules. Then, these molecules result in the possibly fatal failure of several significant organs. Unfortunately, one of the major issues regarding this medical phenomenon is the fact that a huge number of doctors don’t even know about it, thus not knowing what to look for when systems start shutting down. And that makes the prescription of a beneficial treatment all the less likely.
Obviously, a global pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 means a host of new challenges for the world’s medical community. There are plenty of secondary and surrounding issues, cytokine storms being nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. By the end of the year, many more similar problems may arise; problems that will require swift and intelligent responses. However, that’s exactly why the general public should strive to inform itself of the coronavirus developments in real-time.