This One Thing Can Accurately Predict Your COVID-19 Risk Level, Study Says

Proteins in your blood may help doctors identify if you will need to use a ventilator.

As medical experts have learned more about the new coronavirus over the last several months, some of their key discoveries have been about the factors that cause severe cases of COVID-19. Age, lifestyle choices, and certain pre-existing health conditions were just a few of the things doctors believed increased a person's coronavirus risk level. And while these were key findings in advancing our knowledge of the virus and how to stop it, a recent discovery from the University of Virginia School of Medicine might be even more crucial to better understanding and assessing your risk of severe symptoms. New research suggests that by examining the blood of COVID-19 patients, doctors can identify those most at risk of severe illness caused by the virus and, in turn, pinpoint individuals most likely to require a ventilator.

For the study (which has not been peer-reviewed and was published in pre-print form on medRxiv), medical experts from the University of Virginia School of Medicine examined the blood of 57 coronavirus patients found on the hospital's electronic database. From their analysis, the study authors realized that high levels of a cytokine named IL-13 were associated with "worsened COVID-19 outcomes regardless of patients' gender, age, or other health problems."

Cytokines—proteins produced by immune cells—cause the immune system to overreact, a process known as "cytokine storms," which is associated with COVID-19 and other illnesses. Connecting high levels of IL-13 to serious coronavirus symptoms means doctors can use blood tests to make fairly accurate predictions on how a patient's particular case of COVID-19 will transpire—allowing doctors to anticipate an individual's medical needs well ahead of time. One such important prediction is whether or not a patient will require a ventilator.

young white female doctor treating patient on ventilator
Shutterstock/Olena Yakobchuk

"There are two potential impacts," study co-author, Bill Petri, MD, PhD, of UVA's Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health, told Best Life. "First, we may be able to use IL-13 as part of a diagnostic test to determine which people with COVID-19 need to be cared for in the hospital vs. at home. Second, we may be able to prevent the development of severe COVID-19 by targeting the IL-13 immune pathway."

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The next step is more testing to better understand the connection between IL-13 and how a person's immune system responds to the coronavirus, potentially leading to new preventative treatments. "We are testing in a model of COVID-19 if therapy that targets IL-13 can prevent respiratory failure," Petri says.

In addition to the role IL-13 plays in severe breathing issues brought on by COVID-19, the researchers also found that levels of two other cytokines were significantly higher in patients with elevated blood sugar. This is a "pro-inflammatory response," which Petri and his colleagues say may shed some light on why diabetes is associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes. And for more on the fight against coronavirus, check out Dr. Fauci Had This Unsettling Thing to Say About Future COVID-19 Treatments.

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