Women show a more robust immune response to COVID-19

A group of researchers started studying how male and female immune system response to new coronavirus may shed light on why men are more likely to fall ill than women.

From the beginning of the pandemic, it is clear that men, particularly older men, are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. This is in comparison with the women of a similar age, but scientists couldn’t find the exact reason behind this. The journal Nature published a new study reports that men account for about 60% of deaths from COVI-19. The researchers discussed the differences in immune responses too.

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Why there is a difference in the immune response?

Akiko Iwasaki is a professor and lead author of the study at Yale University. Iwasaki said in a video that they found both men and women develop different immune responses to COVID-19. Moreover, the immunity specialist explained that these differences might result in increased disease susceptibility in men.

The researchers collected samples (nasal, saliva and blood) from non-infected control subjects. And also from the COVID-19 positive patients treated at Yale New Haven Hospital in the United States. Then they also monitored the patients to look at their immune responses.

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Immune response in women and men

Women mounted a more robust immune response which involves T lymphocytes. T lymphocytes are a type of white blood cells that have the capacity to recognize viruses and eliminate them. Moreover, older women also show the same results.

In contrast to this, the older men show weaker T cell activity and how more aged they were, the more inadequate the response.

However, men also produce cytokines, which are inflammatory proteins. These proteins are another form of the natural immune defence in the body.

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Cytokine storm

Severe cases of COVID-19 are linked to “cytokine storm.” This happens when the immune system goes into overdrive, which causes more harm and leads to death.

Men who have higher concentrations of cytokines were more likely to have a severe case of the disease. At the same time, women who showed significant cytokine levels appeared to fare worse. The authors say that this could imply that both men and women require different treatments.

Separate treatments for men and women

Iwasaki said that for men, we should enhance their T cell responses with vaccines. Furthermore, while for women, we should provide a treatment which dampens the cytokine response.

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Limitations of the study

The study has some limitations. The first limitation is that the sample size was relatively small, a total of only 98 patients involved in this study. Moreover, the average age of the patients was also very high, i.e., at around sixty years.

Contradictions of the study

Eleanor Riley is a professor at the University of Edinburgh commented on this research. Riley said that she noted some of the divergences in this study. She added that these differences in severity might be due to differences in age or BMI. When these other factors are taken into account, the sex differences will disappear. Body Mass Index or BMI measures body fat. Moreover, she pointed out that others may rise “by chance.”

Riley added that the average response between men and women might differ. But the range of most of the measurements in men and women overlap significantly. Moreover, women may have indistinguishable responses from those of many men.

Riley finally concluded that this is why treatments would be better if they were tailored individually rather than defined solely on sex.

Get more information from the article, “Sex differences in immune responses that underlie COVID-19 disease outcomes.”

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