There are many things we do not know about COVID-19, but it seems we do know one thing: the virus can attack anyone.
Reports during the past week revealed a baby dying in Illinois, and a 103-year-old woman in Japan who suffered from the virus seems to be on the road to recovering.
While we have seen the virus attack young and old in nearly every country in the world, a study of deaths in China, South Korea and Italy has revealed a common thread – men are more likely than women to die from COVID-19.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, said at a recent White House press briefing: "From Italy, we're seeing another concerning trend. That the mortality in males seems to be twice in every age group of females." Numbers from various health care research organizations confirm Birx’s statement.
“This is a pattern we’ve seen with many viral infections of the respiratory tract — men can have worse outcomes,” Sabra Klein, a scientist who studies sex differences in viral infections and vaccination responses at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times.
Men represented an overwhelming percentage of COVID-19 deaths in Western Europe, according to the World Health Organization. Around 70% of those who have died from the virus in those countries were men.
A study from China showed that since the virus was first seen in that country in December, 2.8% of Chinese men diagnosed with the virus had died as of Feb, 11. The number for fatal outcomes from COVID-19 for women was 1.7%. The study looked at 44,000 patients.
In Italy, where more than 11,500 have died from complications of the virus, men made up about the same percentage of the deaths since January – 70%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not released information on the percentage of deaths by gender for the United States.
Why are the numbers higher in men?
Researchers say there are several factors that likely contribute to the higher percentage of coronavirus deaths in men. Among them are smoking, preexisting conditions and male physiology.
Smoking increases the chance of lung damage, and lung damage leaves patients open to the worst of the COVID-19 virus.
Men tend to have higher instances of the preexisting conditions that have led to worse outcomes for those who contract the virus.
In Italy, men have higher rates of hypertension than women of the same age. In China, more men than women suffer from diabetes.
According to the Global Health 50/50, an organization that tracks gender equality in global health, “Preliminary reports of people with severe COVID-19 disease have found associations with existing co-morbidities including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and some chronic lung diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”
Global Health 50/50 has found through research that worldwide, men tend to suffer more than women from those conditions.
Another factor that may provide women with more protection is their hormones.
A study by the University of Iowa of mice infected with SARS, a common type of coronavirus, found that hormones such as estrogen seem to make female mice somewhat less likely to die from the disease.
“There’s something about the immune system in females that is more exuberant,” Dr. Janine Clayton, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health, told The New York Times.
A study suggested that because women have two X chromosomes, they have a physiological advantage that results in “faster clearance of viruses” from the body.