Even at the beginning of the corona pandemic, it became clear that on average men seem to be more ill than women. Researchers may now have come a little closer to solving the riddle. The immune systems of men and women seem to react differently to the virus.
Doctors worldwide have been researching the corona virus for months. But there are still many unanswered questions. Experts are still puzzled as to why men apparently get more sick with Covid-19 than women – and also more often die after a virus infection. The first indications of this were already available shortly after the start of the pandemic based on Chinese patient data. The trend also continued in other countries, including Germany. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has so far listed 9280 deaths in connection with Covid 19 disease – 55 percent are men, 45 percent women. And that although both sexes are infected with the virus about the same frequency.
US researchers have now examined how the immune systems of men and women react to infection with the virus. The results were published in the journal “Nature” and provide evidence that different immune responses in men and women may play a role in the observed differences.
The team around the immunologist Akiko Iwasaki examined a total of 17 men and 22 women who were treated in a hospital shortly after their diagnosis. Among other things, blood samples and throat swabs were taken from these and analyzed. The data from 59 other men and women were also included in the analysis.
Men’s immune response is weaker
The studies showed that women produced significantly more so-called specialized T cells. In addition to antibodies, T cells are an important pillar of the human immune system . You can recognize and fight structures foreign to the body. For example, there are T cells that kill the body’s own cells that have been infected by viruses. Others activate so-called B cells, which then produce antibodies.
In the case of men, however, the mobilization of this defense force was fundamentally weaker. Weak T cells were also associated with more severe disease processes. The activation of the immune cells also decreased with age. Women, on the other hand, had a “pretty good, decent immune response,” even up to the old age of 90, according to immunologist Iwasaki.
These results are by no means surprising. It is already known that the immune system of women can generally fight off viruses more strongly than that of men. The reason for this is unclear, but it could serve as some kind of protection for unborn children. On the other hand, women suffer much more often from autoimmune diseases – i.e. diseases in which an excessive reaction of the immune system triggers complaints by directing the immune system against the body’s own structures.
The researchers also found elevated cytokine levels in the blood of all patients. These are messenger substances that are formed during an immune reaction and are considered to be important markers of inflammation. Certain cytokines – including interleukin 8 and interleukin 18 – were elevated in all of the men examined, but only in a few women. On the other hand, if women had elevated values, they also became more ill. It is already known that a so-called cytokine storm can occur in individual cases during a Covid 19 illness, a potentially life-threatening derailment of the immune system.
Even if the study is quite small and ultimately cannot prove that the observed differences are solely due to gender, the researchers hope to gain new impulses for the therapy and prevention of Covid-19. The observed differences could possibly play a role in immunization by vaccines, but also in the gender-specific therapy of corona patients, they write in a press release. But more research is needed.