Study explores differences in COVID-19 severity internationally

Sept. 8, 2021

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently awarded a $10 million grant to a team at the University of Florida for a project examining factors influencing COVID-19 severity in sub-Saharan Africa.

The team and its international collaborators will study the current and past history of exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its genetic variants that cause COVID-19 in two African countries, along with other factors. The project will also use engineered CRISPR-based genetic tests for detecting SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria have so far reported fewer infections and deaths due to COVID-19, compared with heavily affected western countries. The researchers will coordinate closely with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to characterize host and pathogen features that differentiate the pandemic experience of the United States and sub-Saharan countries.

“Although lack of testing capacity may explain differences in case numbers, the lower number of severe cases leading to death suggests that other factors may be influencing the local COVID-19 epidemic in each country,” said Rhoel Dinglasan, PhD, MPH, Professor of Infectious Diseases with the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, part of UF Health.

Common parasitic infections found in sub-Saharan Africa, such as malaria and schistosomiasis, can suppress the immune system, which might then prevent severe COVID-19 from developing, he said. A dampened immune response during a SARS-CoV-2 infection can, in turn, prevent the cascade of hyperinflammation that often proves so deadly in COVID-19 patients. Another possibility is that infections with other diseases results in cross-protective immunity.

Researchers will collect blood samples from 1,500 participants per country to test for markers of past and current SARS-CoV-2 infection and other endemic parasites or viruses. The samples will be collected four times over several years to track participants’ health and disease risk.

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