UVA study helps predict severe COVID-19 reactions

Posted at 5:40 PM, Jul 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-08 17:40:15-04

NORFOLK, Va. - Doctors at the University of Virginia are trying to understand why coronavirus is deadly and debilitating in some people, but barely noticeable in others. A blood test could be the key.

In a conversation with Dr. Bill Petri, an infectious disease expert at UVA, News 3 This Morning anchor Jessica Larche shares what they’re learning in groundbreaking research.

Dr. Petri: What we're trying to understand is why to 80% of people do well with this infection. And when what's different about the 20% who ended up in the hospital and of those about half end up having such severe pneumonia, they end up on a ventilator. And so, what we've done is that when the patient is admitted to UVA hospital, we've been testing the bloodstream for what are called cytokines, which are molecules that the immune system uses to signal from cell to cell, and try to understand, is there a different cytokine or immune response in patients who go on to requiring a mechanical ventilation versus ones who don't? But even with a small number of patients, there's a very, very strong signal for a cytokine that's called interleukin 13, and it's kind of an unlucky number, and it may be unlucky for patients because if you have more interleukin 13, you're much more likely to require mechanical ventilations within the first week of being in the hospital

Jessica: With the information you have from patients at UVA, how do you think that this will be, can be used in the future?

Dr. Petri: The next thing will be really to understand what is interleukin 13 doing to the lungs and why is it so predictive of people going on to have very, very severe pneumonia due to COVID-19, but across the board, this is broad activation of the immune system that we've not seen in other infectious diseases. And we've done a fair amount of work on parasitic diseases and bacterial diseases and not seen anything like this. And so it's quite dramatic. And I think that it underlies a lot of like what is leading to such severe disease in some people,

Jessica: Does that say more about the severity of COVID-19 or the state of our health of our immune system? Does that say that COVID-19 is really bad or that as a people, we need to be healthier to fight off something like this?

Dr. Petri: Well, I think it certainly helps to exercise, watch your diet, manage illnesses like heart failure, lung disease. But this virus seems very capable of causing terrible problems in a perfectly healthy person. This is a terrible infection. It's not easy. You, no one wants to get [it] and you know, Virginia, we have done so well with adhering to social distancing and wearing masks and washing our hands all the time. And so, you know, this way, I think we just need to do more of the same, because this is not an infection that you want to get. It's not an infection you want to give to a family member. You know, I think it's… this is a very, very serious illness, which unfortunately is not going away anytime soon.

Jessica: And I think that's important for us to remember as we're going into Phase Three.

Dr. Petri: Yes, we're in Phase Three, but it does not mean the pandemic is over. Exactly, Jessica.

Dr. Petri says they hope their research explains why diabetics have such devastating reactions to COVID-19 as well.

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