The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has spread vastly across the globe, infecting more than 6.40 million people. The death toll has topped 380,000. The elderly, those who have weak immune systems, and those with underlying medical conditions are at the highest risk of developing severe disease and even death.
Now, scientists have found that the novel coronavirus, also called the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), may not be a respiratory disease as it attacks the blood vessels, too.
People who have hypertension are at the highest risk of having severe COVID-19.
As the pandemic evolves and has spread in 188 countries, reports of blood clots in patients have emerged in various countries. The disease has initially been thought to mainly affect the lungs in the form of pneumonia.
A blood vessel disease?
Months into the pandemic, there is growing evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 infects blood vessels, explaining the high incidence of strokes, blood clots, and heart attacks in people with COVID-19.
Though the most common cause of death among infected patients in acute respiratory syndrome (ARDS), organs other than the lungs are also severely affected. In some patients, doctors have seen cardiac injury and acute kidney failure. Many patients also exhibited high levels of inflammation in their vital organs.
In a study published in the journal The Lancet, a team of researchers found that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can infect the endothelial cells, which line the blood vessel wall. They also protect the cardiovascular system and play essential roles in blood clotting and the body’s immune response.
Aside from the blood vessels, the team found multiple organ damage, affecting the endothelial cells in the lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, and even intestines.
Many other symptoms, aside from cough, fever, and difficulty of breathing have been reported by a vast number of patients. These include headaches, fatigue, and painful fingers, among others. All these have one thing in common – a lack of oxygen due to impaired blood circulation.
About 40 percent of deaths tied to SARS-CoV-2 infection are related to cardiovascular complications, hinting that the illness may be more of a blood vessel disease, instead of a respiratory one.
“All these COVID-associated complications were a mystery. We see blood clotting; we see kidney damage, we see inflammation of the heart, we see stroke, we see encephalitis [swelling of the brain]. A whole myriad of seemingly unconnected phenomena that you do not normally see with SARS or H1N1 or, frankly, most infectious diseases,” Dr. William Li, MD, president of the Angiogenesis Foundation, said.
Many patients who died from COVID-19 experienced acute kidney failure, organ damage, and mysterious blood clots. In the University Hospital in Zurich, an autopsy of a patient revealed tiny clots, and dead cells were found in the capillaries of the lungs. Also, the inflammation had affected and hardened the blood vessels that carry blood with oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.
What can be done?
There is still no cure or vaccine against COVID-19. People should practice social distancing and proper hygiene to prevent infection. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends washing the hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet or two arm’s length from other people. Universal masking is also urged, primarily that the virus can be transmitted even by people with no symptoms, or otherwise called the “silent shedders”.
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