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Understanding ‘viral load’ and COVID-19

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By Michaela Tangan, Features Writer, The Philippine STAR

According to the World Health Organization, older people and those with underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk of getting severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19). However, some young individuals and medical frontliners who are always exposed to numerous COVID-19 patients have also fallen seriously ill due to the virus.

As scientists and experts continue to understand the behavior of COVID-19, they are looking into “viral load”, which is the amount of virus a person has inside them, and whether a high viral load means worse illness.

A study from China, where the spread of the virus began, suggests that people exposed to a larger viral load could experience worse symptoms when they get the coronavirus. This was also observed during the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. However, another study reported that there is no difference between how much coronavirus a person is exposed to and how sick they get.

Sarah Caddy, a clinical research fellow in viral immunology and veterinary surgeon at University of Cambridge, wrote in The Conversation that there are factors to consider aside from the amount of virus.

“It is important to bear in mind that the amount of virus it takes to cause infection is only one part of the story. How the body responds to the virus can also be critical. This is because the immune response to a virus can be both beneficial and harmful. If the immune system isn’t adequately activated, the virus can replicate faster. On the other hand, if the immune system is over-activated, it can damage healthy tissues,” Ms. Caddy wrote.

“There is a long list of medical conditions that can increase the chances of having a severe case of COVID-19, from diabetes to high blood pressure. But what about factors such as exhaustion or extreme stress? We expect many frontline medical staff to be under significant pressure in the coming weeks and months; could this affect their susceptibility?,” she added.





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