Five days after President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, Schar School neurobiologist James Olds and Nadine Kabbani, an associate professor at Mason’s School of Systems Biology, released a study linking prior nicotine exposure to COVID-19 cardiopulmonary vulnerability. The study called on data and research from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 and concluded that those exposed to nicotine are “primed” to be at higher risk of COVID-19.
They published a second study days later revealing similar findings regarding the COVID-19 and the brain.
“Smoking history is germane to how the disease will present in patients,” said Olds, former Director of Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation. “Understanding the symptoms is important for early detection and management. Asymptomatic individuals may also be at some risk that we still don't understand.”
Kabbani, an associate professor in Mason’s School of Systems Biology and associate director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, said the nicotine exposure can come from smoking cigarettes, using electronic cigarettes, vaping, or maybe even second-hand smoke.
“Prolonged nicotine exposure systemically—through various kinds of smoking habits—may thus provide a cellular mechanism for susceptibility to the virus and impact illness severity,” she said. “The activation of nicotinic receptors by smoking is coupled to how the host receptor for the virus, ACE2, is distributed on lung epithelial cells.”
The cardiopulmonary study was published in The FEBS Journal of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies. The second study, published April 1 in the journal Molecular Pharmacology, drew the same conclusions about nicotine exposure and heightened vulnerability in the brain. The bottom line: “Viral entry into the brain now appears a strong possibility with deleterious consequences and an urgent need for addressing.”
The World Health Organization released a statement addressing nicotine vulnerability on May 11.
“If our hypothesis is correct, nicotine consumption in Latin America and Africa predict future health challenges for at-risk populations as the epidemic proceeds,” warned Olds. “This is a new and evolving situation, and we need to be highly vigilant on many fronts.”
Additional reporting by Colleen Kearney Rich.