Interferons Could Be the Solution for COVID-19

By: Ian Hill

When a human gets coronavirus, their immune system does everything in its power to stop the virus. However, not everything it sends at the coronavirus is good. Some may even make it worse. Researchers have been looking for a way to make our immune systems stronger in order to prevent serious cases of the virus.

113 coronavirus patients that were admitted to the Yale New Haven Hospital during May had their immune system chemicals and cells checked. They split them into two groups. One of the groups were people who had severe cases of COVID-19, and the other group was made up of people who were hospitalized, but did not have severe enough cases to be put in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Patients who were moderately ill had a spurt of immune chemicals in response to COVID-19, then those levels slowly went back to normal. In the people who had more extreme cases, however, their immune chemical levels stayed high, although these chemicals do not necessarily kill viruses; other studies showed that severely ill patients had very low levels of immune cells used for killing viruses.

One of the chemicals that the body may be throwing at the virus is called interferon alpha. This is normally the first line of defense for the body. After the interferons do their job, they disappear while other chemicals take over the fight. With people who have severe diseases, however, the interferon does not go away, or they end up becoming harmful to the patient. If a patient who has been sick for 10 days gets tested and finds out that their interferon levels are high, it is a sign that they will need more medical attention, and may need mechanical ventilators. People with higher levels of interferon alpha have a 4.5 times higher risk of going to the ICU and of dying.

Some people, like Eleanor Fish, a British immunologist at the University of Toronto, say that it may not be interferon alpha that is making it worse. It is simply an issue of timing. In coronavirus patients, their interferon levels come too late, because the coronavirus delays the interferon’s arrival. When the coronavirus gets into your immune system, the first line of defense is not there. “What we do know is that the absence of interferon early on in disease is not a good thing,” Fish says.

The coronavirus shuts down interferon early on, making it difficult for your body to defend itself. This allows the virus to invade without the interferon being able to stop it. Essentially, what scientists are thinking about doing is to give people interferons to help them fight the virus. Some trials for this are under way.


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