The coronavirus pandemic is the most serious global problem humanity has faced in the 21st century — and that is barely an overstatement. At first, plenty of policymakers and regular individuals were quick to dismiss the severity of the disease and treated it as nothing more than a particularly bad case of the flu.
However, most scientists and medical professionals were pointing out that this is something more serious and deadly right from the start. Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that the virus is incredibly contagious — and deadly for individuals who were already burdened with chronic illnesses before catching the virus.
And if this was not enough, the nature of the virus isn’t fully understood even now, months from its discovery. Physicians and researchers all over the world are struggling to understand new aspects of the virus on a daily basis. One particularly important development is the fact that this virus is not always properly responded to by human immune systems.
The Problem at Hand
A month or two after we realized the scale of the COVID-19 problem and its global consequences, the traits of people who turned out to be COVID-19 positive were pretty well-known. Issues like a higher degree of lung opacity, heavy coughing, and a dangerously heightened fever were commonplace. Usually, older people and those with chronic problems were the ones who suffered the most when they would contract the virus.
However, after a while, a new problem emerged. Relatively young people began requiring hospital admittance due to the severity of their symptoms, seemingly with no logical reason. In fact, their symptoms would become significantly more dangerous after just a couple of days.
A lot of doctors were left scratching their heads with no other option but to treat the symptoms instead of the cause, which was still unknown. Remember, these were people who worked out regularly, ate healthy diets, and generally had a balanced immune system that was supposed to be strong enough to defeat the illness. In the end – that is precisely what turned out to be the problem. The real underlying cause of their larger issues was, in fact, a cytokine storm in their immune systems.
A cytokine storm is probably not a term you’re intuitively familiar with. And that’s perfectly understandable, seeing as we are talking about a phenomenon that even left professional doctors baffled for a long while. So, what is this, and perhaps more importantly, why does it happen?
When our immune system realizes that there is an external threat to our health, it activates itself. Usually, this threat is some sort of virus or bacteria. The immune system responds to signals sent by the specifically affected organs and produces molecules that are supposed to fight off the intruder. These molecules are the above-mentioned cytokines — tiny proteins whose sole role is to help the immune system in telling other cells how to behave.
Logically, someone with a healthier and younger immune system will have an easier time defending against all types of infections, COVID-19 included. And when someone’s immune system manages to fulfill its purpose and defeat the unwanted bacteria or viruses, it’s designed to calm itself and become dormant again. Hypothetically, what would happen if the immune system failed in this final part of its programming? That’s right: cytokine storms.
Up to 15% of all patients who are suffering from the coronavirus actually experience this; more than with other illnesses humanity has dealt with recently. When the virus is bested, the immune system does not stop working. Instead, it goes on creating the cytokines. And these cytokines do important work when there is an intruder to destroy. But when there’s not, they go onto attacking cells of your vital organs. Obviously, this can be as deadly as the coronavirus itself, if not more.
Pandemics and Cytokines
As you’ve probably heard already, the COVID-19 virus is most dangerous for older individuals; after all, they’re the ones who are most likely to already have chronic health problems. However, if your problem turns out to be cytokines and not the virus that triggered their production, know that cytokine storms are not less dangerous for younger people. Your age doesn’t matter here, only the skill and knowledge of the doctors who are treating your symptoms, and some basic luck.
Don’t worry, though, this isn’t another global threat that you have to think about. Studies suggest that cytokine storms were a part of past pandemics as well, though perhaps not as prominently. Or, on the other hand, we simply did not have enough data during the Spanish flu or SARS eras.
There are experimental treatments being worked on as we speak. In the process of looking for drugs that could treat the cause of cytokine storms, scientists have unearthed the most impactful trigger for them happening in the first place. While a part of this is just plain bad luck, plenty of people who experienced cytokine storms actually turned out to have genetic predispositions.
Pandemics of any kind require rapid action for treatment and hospitalization, and even quicker research efforts. In that regard, COVID-19 is certainly no exception; the global community of physicians and other medical professionals are constantly facing new challenges as if they were playing a particularly morbid game of whack-a-mole.
While new problems may appear before this year is done, and a coronavirus vaccine may not be anywhere near in your sight; the doctors of the world have shown a preparedness to sacrifice themselves and their own wellbeing. Whether in treatment or research efforts, it ultimately doesn’t matter — cytokine storms are just another type of storm we’ll weather through.