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New study examines why COVID-19 pneumonia is so severe

Covid Lungs
Posted at 2:08 PM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 15:08:27-05

CHICAGO — A study published this week in the scientific journal Nature examines why COVID-19 pneumonia lasts longer and causes more damage to lung tissue than typical pneumonia.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists have been trying to figure out why the novel coronavirus is so destructive to the lungs.

“Pneumonia that lands people in the ICU on life-support does tend to last longer than pneumonia that is caused by other types of bugs,” said Dr. Benjamin Singer, one of the co-authors of the study and an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Singer says viral pneumonia, like that found in the flu, is like a burst of fire, where the lungs are inflamed for a short period of time.

“The immune response to COVID pneumonia is much more like kind of a slow burn in the lungs where people are exposed to inflammation over a long period of time and that's where we see this great degree of damage.”

The first-of-its-kind study compared fluid collected from the lungs of COVID-19 ICU patients with that of pneumonia patients from before the pandemic.

“Our study is just the tip of the iceberg in trying to understand the differences between patients that determine who is going to go on to get better and unfortunately who doesn't,” said Singer.

It’s why scientists are looking at data like this to develop new experimental drugs to help control the wildfire-like inflammation sparked by coronavirus in the lungs.

“Actually, looking at the molecules and the different substances that are dysregulated in COVID-19 has given us really promising leads for targets to study in drug trials,” said Singer.

Dr. Singer says much like the flu, COVID-19 is unlikely to ever go away completely, even after mass vaccinations, which is why he says it’s critical to understand how to treat it long-term.

“We are learning new ways to care for patients with severe pneumonia largely and pandemics come over time. Right. And so, I hope that what we've learned from this pandemic will allow us to be better prepared for the next pandemic of a deadly virus.”