And it turns out there may be a common link.
When COVID-19 was first reported in China, it was described as an unusual pneumonia. And as it spread to Europe and the U.S, it indeed looked like a severe viral pneumonia, triggering desperate calls for ventilators. But then came reports of coronavirus-related strokes and heart attacks. Autopsies revealed abnormal blood clotting, kidney damage, heart inflammation, encephalitis, and even COVID toes.
So is there something linking all these seemingly unconnected problems? Maybe COVID-19 is not just a respiratory virus but also a vascular one.
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Several recent studies have found that this coronavirus infects and damages endothelial cells that line the inside of all blood vessels. These protective cells influence everything from blood clotting to immune response, and the receptor that this virus uses to break into and infect cells is found in virtually every cell in the body, especially endothelial cells.
Damaged endothelial cells set off runaway inflammation, and promote blood clot formation. That can explain the odd mix of diseases from heart attacks, strokes, to lung damage, and even COVID toes. It could also account for the high mortality in people with pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, all diseases known to impact endothelial cells.
The good news is that if COVID-19 is a vascular disease, there are existing drugs that can protect endothelial cells. We know that patients taking statins and blood pressure drugs called ace-inhibitors had higher rates of survival. We may finally be getting close to effective COVID-19 treatments.