Ever since the first case of Coronavirus emerged in China four months ago, countries all around the world are trying to contain the spread of the virus by imposing stricter measures such as social distancing and nationwide lockdown.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which is monitoring the pandemic since the beginning, has asked people to follow specific safety measures to defeat the novel Coronavirus. The organization has advised people to quit smoking as the habit increases the risk of infection.
But some recent research reports have claimed that the number of smokers among COVID-19 patients are much lower than expected. Now, new facts are emerging with additional claims against the vulnerability of smokers.
Nicotine prevents Coronavirus?
The use of tobacco is thought to kill an estimated eight million people every year. But a study, by the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris suggested that "nicotine may be suggested as a potential preventive agent against COVID-19 infection," based on scientific literature and the hospital's own observations. It also mentioned that "current smoking status appears to be a protective factor against the infection by SARS-CoV-2."
Since, ACE-2 receptors in the airways act like doorway for virus into the body, nicotine blocks these receptors, making it difficult for coronavirus to bind with them and enter the blood. Thus, some researchers suggest that smokers have low chances of illness when infected with coronavirus because nicotine reduces the number of receptors which in turn block entry of virus into blood cells.
Data on smokers reveal so
Their study is based on data collected from 480 patients tested positive for COVID-19. Out of that 350 patients were hospitalized and only 4.4 percent were regular smokers with an average age of 65. Out of people who did not hospitalize 5.3 percent were smokers with an average age of 44. They noticed that very few smokers reported to test positive of the virus as nearly 40 percent of the general population smokes with a median age of 44 to 53.
After this finding, French doctors have embarked upon a plan to give nicotine patch to coronavirus patients as there are low rates of smokers amongst the infected patients. It should be noted that this study also warned that "nicotine is a drug of abuse responsible for smoking addiction."
However, another French study conducted by the Pasteur Institute found that smokers were four times less likely to catch Coronavirus. This research, which included 700 participants, revealed that only 7.2 percent of those infected were smokers.
There are many scientists who are trying to stop the new Coronavirus, insisting that smokers have low chances of illness when infected with COVID-19 because nicotine reduces the number of receptors which in turn block the access of virus into the blood.
WHO differs but on different ground
It is a well-known fact that smoking is one of the reasons behind lung cancer. In terms of Coronavirus, a Chinese research had claimed that smokers were 14 times more likely to develop serious complications, so there is no scientific consensus that smoking can prevent or lessen coronavirus spread.
Citing its stand on smoking, WHO has warned people that:
"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 Smoking products such as water pipes often involve the sharing of mouthpieces and hoses, which could facilitate the transmission of COVID-19 in communal and social settings.
"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."
There are studies which claimed that smokers were more likely to die than non-smokers as per the experience during the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome or MERS outbreak in 2012. As per the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), researchers have identified smokers as a "vulnerable group" to infection from COVID-19.
ECDC also found a higher ACE2 gene expression in lung tissues, something increased by tobacco use. Recently, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, "It is abundantly clear that smoking makes the impact of Coronavirus worse."
Meanwhile, IBTImes SG talked to former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts, who is the President and co-Founder, Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, an independent body for the study of health matters. When asked about the connection between smoking and COVID-19, he said:
Smoking is the world's #1 preventable health crisis. While anecdotal evidence does show that a small cohort of cigarette smokers and e-cigarette vapers have had better responses to COVID-19, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, it does point to yet reason why e-cigarettes are a far safer alternative to combustible smoking.
On the other hand, University College London academics which looked at 28 research papers, found that the proportions of smokers among hospital patients were 'lower than expected'. As per the experts, one of the studies showed that in UK, the proportion of smokers among Coronavirus patients was just five percent which is a third of the national rate of 14.4 per cent.
While several studies have indicated that smokers are not exactly most vulnerable group when it comes to Coronavirus victims, experts said that there was "something weird going on with smoking and Coronavirus"