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The coronavirus' alarming impact on the body

Scientists are racing to learn more about the damage the novel coronavirus can do to the heart, lungs and brain.

Why it matters: It’s becoming increasingly clear that some patients struggle with its health consequences — and costs — far longer than a few weeks.

The big picture: The virus can have a severe impact on the lungs, as you might expect. Pneumonia associated with the disease can damage air sacs in the lungs, and the resulting scar tissue can cause long-term breathing problems.

  • But researchers conducting autopsies have also found evidence of the virus in parts of the brain, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract and in the cells that line blood vessels, the Washington Post has reported. They’ve also found clotting in many organs.
  • And problems with the vascular system — body’s network of blood vessels — ”could unleash a global surge in vascular diseases, from stroke and atherosclerosis to myocarditis and heart attack,” William Li and Andrew von Eschenbach wrote in a recent WaPo op-ed. Li is the president of the Angiogenesis Foundation, and von Eschenbach is a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner.

One of the most attention-grabbing effects of the virus is its link to myocarditis, particularly because of concerns about the dangers the heart disease poses to athletes.

  • One particularly alarming study, conducted in Germany, found that 78% of people who had recovered from the coronavirus had heart abnormalities that could be detected on an MRI two months later, including many who hadn’t been hospitalized. Around 60% had signs of myocarditis.
  • But it’s hard to attach meaning to these findings yet, as The Atlantic’s Ed Yong recently reported. Many people have myocarditis and are fine; others can have severe complications, including health failure and death.
  • “How do the numbers compare to other respiratory viruses? Will COVID-19 patients with myocarditis recover fully, or will some have long-term problems? Is this virus doing something strange, or are researchers just studying it more intensely than other viral infections? For now, it’s difficult to say,” Yong writes.

Coronavirus patients frequently report neurological symptoms — including scary ones like stroke, brain hemorrhage and memory loss — and a recent study found evidence that the virus can invade brain cells, the New York Times writes. The study hadn’t yet been peer-reviewed.

  • Between 40% and 60% of hospitalized coronavirus patients have neurological and psychiatric symptoms. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the virus has invaded their brain cells, Robert Stevens, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University, told the NYT.
  • Patients with neurological symptoms aren’t always those who have been seriously ill. “We’ve seen this group of younger people without conventional risk factors who are having strokes, and patients having acute changes in mental status that are not otherwise explained,” Benedict Michael, a neurologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, told Nature.
  • Autopsies have also found extensive brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, which raises the question of “what happens to people who survive covid,” as Isaac Solomon, a neuropathologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told the Post.

Between the lines: It’s unclear whether the virus itself causes organ damage, or whether it’s a result of the body’s immune response — or both.

  • That matters for how a patients’ symptoms are treated. “It’s pointless giving the antivirals to someone if the virus is gone, and it’s risky giving anti-inflammatories to someone who’s got a virus in their brain,” Michael told Nature.

The bottom line: Even if we manage to get the coronavirus under control, whether that’s through a vaccine or behavior modification, we’re probably going to be dealing with its effects for a long time.

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