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The Making of Medicine

Blood Test Can Predict COVID-19 Severity

A blood test at the time of diagnosis of COVID-19 can identify patients most at risk for needing a ventilator later on, new research from our Bill Petri, MD, PhD, suggests.

Dr. Petri and his team found that they could predict patient outcomes based on the levels of a particular cytokine in the blood. Cytokines are proteins produced by immune cells. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about the deadly “cytokine storms” seen in severe cases of COVID-19 —  these storms are when the immune system spirals out of control, flooding the body with inflammation.

Dr. Petri determined that the best predictor of COVID-19 outcomes was a particular cytokine typically associated with allergies. High levels of this cytokine, IL-13, were associated with worsened COVID-19 outcomes regardless of age, gender or pre-existing health problems.

The researchers say the discovery could be used as part of a scoring system to let doctors flag up at-risk COVID-19 patients. Doctors also may be able to target IL-13, and other cytokines Dr. Petri’s team identified, to prevent cytokine storms in patients with severe COVID-19.

Interestingly, Dr. Petri found that two cytokines were significantly elevated in COVID-19 patients with high blood sugar. This may help explain why diabetes is associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes: The immune system is already primed to overreact.

Dr. Petri and his team are continuing their research. We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you might check out Dr. Petri’s thoughts on why the victory over polio should give us hope in the fight against COVID-19.

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