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Are smokers more vulnerable to coronavirus? Scientists say not enough evidence to settle the debate

While WHO suggests smokers could be at a higher risk, a recent study says there is no connection between the virus and smokers
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crippling the world, there are numerous ongoing researches studying the spread of the disease and risk factors, among other aspects. In China, where the epidemic started, a study conducted by the Wuhan research team suggested that smokers are likely to be at a higher risk when it comes to contracting the virus. However, a new study by researchers in Wuhan suggests that smokers are less likely to end up at the hospital.

The study done by the Wuhan experts was published in the 'Chinese Medical Journal'. The research was conducted in three tertiary hospitals with 78 patients who were tested positive for the coronavirus. However, it was unclear how many of them were smokers. Doctors followed COVID-19 patients with pneumonia for two weeks to assess how their health profile affected them.

The research concluded that the progression of the COVID-19 was identified by age, maximum body temperature on admission, respiratory failure, albumin, C-reactive protein and a history of smoking. The findings published suggested that the patients whose conditions worsened had a significantly higher number of smokers compared to the patients who got better – 27 percent compared to 3 percent.

(Getty Images)

However, a study published in ‘The Lancet’ conducted research on 191 patients in Wuhan and tracked their progress. It found that most infected patients were men and that less than half the patients had underlying ailments including heart diseases, diabetes, hypertension and respiratory issues. The study showed no connection between the virus and the smokers. There was no evidence to prove that smokers are at a greater risk.

Another research done by the 'European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI)' suggested that among the 140 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 cases, most patients were middle‐ and old‐aged, with almost 1:1 male‐female ratio. The patients suffered from fever and fatigue, and one-third of them suffered from chest tightness or dyspnea and gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea and anorexia. The study suggested that there were few current smokers and few former smokers among these patients but none of them showcased any high-risk symptoms.

However, health experts around the world have urged people to stop smoking in the midst of the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization(WHO), smokers and their families face a higher risk. They stated, "Smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips which increases the possibility of transmission of the virus from hand to mouth."

"Smokers may also already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity which would greatly increase the risk of serious illness. Conditions that increase oxygen needs or reduce the ability of the body to use it properly will put patients at higher risk of serious lung conditions such as pneumonia," it continued. 

(Getty Images)

Doctors across the world are concerned and called for further trials, aware that smokers generally are in danger of picking up more infections. 

Dr James Gill, a locum GP and honorary clinical lecturer at Warwick Medical School, told Daily Mail, "Possibly one of the biggest reasons smokers are at increased risk of respiratory infections is the impairment and death of the cilia in the airways and lungs. In simple terms, the airways are lined with cilia — small brush-like hairs — these structures provide an absolutely vital function in moving mucous, inhaled debris and potentially infectious agents out of the airways and lungs before an infection can take hold.”

Some of these studies on Wuhan were evaluated by a team of experts led by the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, who aimed to settle the debate over whether smokers should be concerned. However, the team urged for further research on the effects of smoking and its correlation with coronavirus due to the limited data available. The Wuhan experts concluded the research stating smoking is "most likely associated with the negative progression and adverse outcomes of COVID-19" in the journal ‘Tobacco Induced Diseases’.