Coronavirus appears to pose a particular threat to men. Middle-aged and older men, and those with underlying health conditions that affect the immune system, are being especially badly hit by the virus. And while scientists can’t say for certain why the current pandemic is discriminating by sex, it isn’t a total surprise.
The discrepancy was first seen in China. An analysis of 44,672 confirmed cases from late 2019, when the virus first emerged in the city of Wuhan, up to February 11, found the death rate among men was 2.8 per cent, compared to 1.7 per cent among women. Italy – whose death toll surpassed China’s on March 19 – has followed a similar trend with a case fatality rate of 10.6 per cent in men, compared with six per cent in women, according to the country’s national health institute.
Men were also disproportionately likely to die during the Sars and Mers outbreaks, which were caused by similar coronaviruses. More women than men suffered from severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in Hong Kong in 2003, but an analysis of all 1,755 cases showed that the death rate among men was 50 per cent higher. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people, adult men were also more likely to die than women.
While scientists don’t know what’s causing the gender disparity in this current pandemic, smoking and drinking have been floated as possible theories. Historically, men smoke more than women and the difference is particularly large in China, where nearly 50 percent of men but less than three per cent of women smoke.
People who smoke are more likely to develop chronic lung and heart diseases, which are tied to worse outcomes if they contract Covid-19. “One of the main reasons for death is that your lungs are no longer working and if your lungs are already damaged because of smoking, there’s less reserve before the lungs no longer are sufficiently effective at keeping you oxygenated,” says Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.
A study of 1,099 patients in China with Covid-19, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 2020, found that smokers made up about 26 per cent of those that ended up in intensive care or died of the disease. Smokers are also more likely to contract the novel Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus in the first place as they transmit it from hand to mouth when touching their lips and because they may share contaminated cigarettes.
In Italy, however, the sex differences among smokers are much smaller than China with 28 per cent of men smoking and 19 per cent of women smoking. This may suggest that there is some other as yet unidentified factor at play.
Women mount stronger immune responses than men – except during pregnancy to avoid attacking and rejecting the foetus growing inside them – which could be another plausible explanation for the emerging picture of male susceptibility to the Covid-19 disease. In a series of experiments in 2016 and 2017, microbiologists from the University of Iowa infected male and female mice with the coronavirus that caused Sars, and as had happened in humans, male mice were more likely to die. But when the team removed the ovaries from females, their death rates shot up suggesting that the hormone oestrogen somehow protected them from Sars.
Hormones could also play a part in how the novel coronavirus, whose genetic makeup is around 79 per cent similar to the Sars virus, interacts with human airways. Ian Hall, a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Nottingham explains that Sars-Cov-2 uses a “spike protein” to attach to a receptor protein called ACE2 on the surface of human respiratory cells. “There could be differences in the way in which the virus interacts with its key receptor in the airways, which might make male individuals more susceptible,” he says, noting that it’s just one theory. Research into the shape of this spike protein and all the ways it folds and shifts with the ACE2 receptor could not only shed light into how the virus infects men and women differently but may also offer a route into treatment.
“If we can identify that key difference, and then we could potentially design a drug which might remove that difference, then that would hopefully reduce the risk in males down to the same risk as you see in females,” says Hall.
Ultimately, biology, lifestyle and behaviour are all likely to play a role in the spread and impact of Covid-19. But it will only be possible to understand the exact differences between men and women once more countries produce and make available sex-disaggregated statistics on infection and mortality.
Global Health 50/50, an initiative that advocates for gender equality in health, has been collecting Covid-19 infection figures from the 25 countries with the highest number of cases, but so far only 12 countries provide details on male and female fatality. Sarah Hawkes, professor of global public health at University College London, who is also co-director of the initiative, points out that some countries – including the UK and US – have failed to provide crucial data. “They definitely have the data, but I don’t know why they’re not putting it out in a sex-disaggregated manner,” she says. “It’s not just a statistical exercise. As a doctor, I’d want to know if there was this quite different risk of death and equally, I’d want to know who’s getting infected.”
Women make up 70 per cent of the workforce in the health and social sector and, according to Hawkes, could be more exposed to the virus because of gendered roles. “In many societies, it’s women who provide frontline care. It’s women who are involved in looking after sick relatives or friends in their homes,” she says. “So am I seeing a spike in the number of young women who have been infected and what can I do about that? There are so many reasons why you’d want to see this data.”
Data on infection and death rates broken down by sex – and age – also help doctors and nurses plan and monitor critical care capacity in hospitals, says Hall. “It does help in terms of planning critical care capacity because one needs to know how many people are likely to deteriorate. We have to match the number of patients who potentially might need critical care with the number of ventilators that are available in different spaces in the hospital.”
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