How coronavirus destroys the human body, one organ at a time


EXCERPT: . . . Doctors from around the world have reported patients who arrive at hospital breathing fine and holding conversations normally despite having catastrophically low levels of oxygen in their red blood cells, a phenomenon known as silent hypoxia.

Covid-19 has confounded the expectations of doctors. Patients suffer from a bewildering variety of complications. They urinate blood, complain of heartburn and lose their sense of smell and taste. A 56-year-old man in a Beijing Hospital developed brain inflammation; his face began to twitch and he hiccuped uncontrollably. A 71-year-old woman, returning to the US from Egypt, developed back pain, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea. Only on her fourth day in hospital did she begin to cough, and was subsequently found to have Covid-19. A neurosurgeon at Mount Sinai Health System in New York treated five patients with sudden strokes. All were under 50, and had either mild symptoms of Covid-19 or no symptoms at all.

Ashworth has seen bodies laced with blood clots and patients hit with heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. “I think that in the scientific and political discourse that took place, there was a failure to recognise that we just don’t know very much about this disease,” says Ashworth. “Everybody said, ‘well this is just ARDS and it’s viral’ and actually, what we’ve got is a disease, which if four million people didn’t have it, it would be fascinating. It is fascinating. It’s a fascinating disease. It’s creating avenues for research that will probably help us treat things like flu. It does all sorts of things that we’ve never really thought about before.”

For most people, Covid-19 is mild – a slight fever and dry cough. But for a small number of patients who become critically ill – around six per cent of confirmed cases – Covid 19 warps into a frighteningly lethal condition. In the UK, a third of patients taken to hospital with the disease end up being killed by it.

For the doctors who treat it at this advanced stage, Covid-19 is an enigma. Not only does it damage the lungs in unexpected ways, but it may also invade the heart, gut, blood vessels, kidneys and brain. “We have come back to the virus as the starting point and recognise that it triggers a whole series of different processes,” says Ashworth. HIV is the archetype of a complex disease, he says. “Covid-19 is not far off it.” (MORE - details)

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