This Is Why Half the Population Is More at Risk of Coronavirus

Researchers have found that COVID-19 is most dangerous for men.

Six months after the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first made itself known, we've seen the heavy toll it has taken on the world. The deadly disease has killed nearly 400,000 people globally, including more than 110,000 people in the U.S. Scientists are studying who is most at risk, so they can find solutions to slow the spread. But one major breakthrough is bleak: Men, a group that makes up half the population, have the highest coronavirus mortality rate.

In the Lombardy region of Italy, men comprised 82 percent of the patients in intensive care units (ICUs), according to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And in New York City, America's biggest COVID-19 hotspot, about twice as many men have died than women, according to epidemiological data from the city's health department.

Why is this? Well, the answer lies in their genetics. Androgens (male sex hormones like testosterone) actually increase the virus's ability to hijack healthy cells. Faranak Fattahi, PhD, a stem cell biologist at The University of California, San Francisco, studied data from hundreds of male patients in the UK Biobank and found that the more active androgens they had in their blood, the more severe their COVID-19 cases were. (That study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was published by bioRxiv.)

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This evidence is also inspiring possible treatments. For instance, researchers around the globe are testing androgen-deprivation therapy (ADT)—or drugs that cut testosterone levels, typically used to fight prostate cancer—to see if it lowers the risk of coronavirus. The results so far are promising. In a study published in Annals of OncologyAndrea Alimonti, MD, head of molecular oncology at the University of Lugano in Switzerland, found that cancer patients on ADT were one-quarter as likely to contract COVID-19 compared to those not on ADT.

Other medical experts, however, think women might be the key to the puzzle, as they have a greater chance of surviving the coronavirus. The New York Times reported that scientists in Los Angeles and on Long Island, New York, are holding clinical trials in which they give men doses of female sex hormones—such as estrogen and progesterone—to boost their immune systems. Researchers say they believe progesterone will have the greatest impact as it contains anti-inflammatory properties.

Sara Ghandehari, MD, a pulmonologist and intensive care physician at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles who is leading the progesterone study, told The New York Times: "There's a striking difference between the number of men and women in the intensive care unit, and men are clearly doing worse." And for more ways coronavirus is dangerous for men, check out The Shocking Reason Older Men Are at an Even Higher Risk for Coronavirus.

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