Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale, has led an amazing research team from the start of this pandemic, analyzing the immune response of patients sick with COVID 19. She has co-authored a review of the immune response to be published in the January edition of Scientific American.
Iwasaki A, Wong P. The immune havoc of COVID-19. Scientific American, January 2021, 35-41.
Here is the link.
Before reading that article, a good place for a lay person to start would be her 8 minute youtube video, Immunology 101.
After watching that video and reading the Scientific American article, if you want a deeper dive into some of her team’s research, watch this video (28 minutes).
The Scientific American article discusses many of the unique characteristics of SARS CoV-2 compared to two previous corona viruses SARS CoV-1 and MERS. SARS CoV-2 which causes the illness called COVID-19, evades the human immune system in many ways. Those who become seriously ill, requiring ICU care, seem to suffer a time lag in their immune response compared to those who suffer less severe illness. In addition, the T-cell response in sicker patients is subdued and inadequate to clear the virus. Finally, a hyper-inflammatory response is present in most who succumb to the illness. Dr. Iwasaki discusses how the Cytokine storm of COVID-19 differs significantly from that seen with other viral infections and likely includes a new phenomenon referred to as a Bradykinin Storm which involves another major component of the immune system. There may even be an auto-immune component to this disease in some or many patients.
“Early in the pandemic, physicians did detect elevated cytokines in patients, but the amount of these proteins and the subsequent inflammatory state they evoked differed from that of a classic cytokine storm.“
“We observed high levels of IL-5 and IL-17,cytokines not classically associated with antiviral immune activity. Instead these cytokines initiate a seemingly misguided
response—one better suited for infections by parasites and fungi.
We have yet to understand whether this response causes damage
to tissue or just diverts resources the body needs to fight the virus.“
In the second video linked above Dr. Iwasaki describes how men and women demonstrate different immune responses with a higher fatality rate observed among men.
Much has been learned but much remains to be discovered as this pandemic continues to unfold.
There are a few clear facts emerging from multiple studies and observations.
Masks and social distancing work. Masks protect both the wearer and those around the wearer.
Most transmission occurs by droplets and aerosol (emitted from the nose and mouth).
Six feet of distancing is helpful but does not guarantee protection. Cases of transmission in restaurants via air flow from HVAC units have been described in which the infected person transmitting disease is far removed from the people becoming infected. (aerosol spread). Droplets and aerosol studies have demonstrated that coughing and sneezing can project infectious particles up to 26 feet.
The most dangerous circumstances for transmission include indoor confined spaces, with multiple people interacting for long periods of time (restaurants, bars, meeting rooms, parties, social gatherings).
Ventilation and air turnover are important factors.
This virus is unique in that higher viral loads and transmissibility occur BEFORE ONSET OF SYMPTOMS, rendering this virus more dangerous than previous pandemics. This can occur in patients who later develop symptoms or in people who carry the virus without ever developing any symptoms.
Some estimate that as much as 50% of transmission occurs from people exhibiting no symptoms.
Finally, “herd immunity” for infectious disease has never been achieved by reaching a critical number of infected people. “Herd immunity” has only been achieved in the past with vaccination programs. Herd immunity does not mean that disease transmission ceases, it means that transmission rates are very low.
What is herd immunity?
When most of a population is immune to an infectious disease, this provides indirect protection—or herd immunity (also called herd protection)—to those who are not immune to the disease.
For example, if 80% of a population is immune to a virus, four out of every five people who encounter someone with the disease won’t get sick (and won’t spread the disease any further). In this way, the spread of infectious diseases is kept under control. Depending how contagious an infection is, usually 50% to 90% of a population needs immunity to achieve herd immunity.
Most experts estimate that vaccination of at least 70% of the population will be required to reach some degree of herd immunity for COVID-19.
Here is a 2 minute discussion of herd immunity from Johns Hopkins before the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines were given Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA.
In the context of the COVID 19 pandemic I will close with the usual summary.
- Avoid alcohol consumption (alcohol wreaks havoc with your immunity)
- Get plenty of sleep (without adequate sleep your immune system does not work well )
- Follow good sleep habits
- Exercise, especially out of doors in a green space, supports the immune system
- Get some sunshine and make sure you have adequate Vitamin D levels.
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet rich in micronutrients.
- Practice stress reduction like meditation and yoga which improves the immune system
- Eliminate sugar-added foods and beverages from your diet. These increase inflammation, cause metabolic dysfunction, and suppress immunity.
- Eliminate refined-inflammatory “vegetable oils” from your diet, instead eat healthy fat.
- Clean up your home environment and minimize your family’s exposure to environmental toxins by following recommendations at EWG.org with regards to household products, personal care products, and organic foods. (https://www.ewg.org/)
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Eat clean, drink filtered water, love, laugh, exercise outdoors in a greenspace, get some morning sunlight, block the blue light before bed, engage in meaningful work, find a sense of purpose, spend time with those you love, AND sleep well tonight.