As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on into its second year, researchers have discovered a new, disturbing trend: there has been a statistically significant rise in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes diagnoses observed in patients after an experience of severe COVID-19. Even more disturbing is that nearly 14.4% of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 go on to have either a type 1 or type 2 diabetes diagnosis, according to a November 2020 study that followed nearly 4,000 patients with severe COVID-19 infections.
It’s too early to tell if these forms of diabetes are permanent or temporary, but the correlation between severe COVID-19 cases and the development of diabetes is strong.
It’s well known that viruses can sometimes trigger diabetes. When someone contracts a virus, the immune system starts mounting a defense to fight it, mostly with T-cells. Sometimes the body will overreact, and start destroying its own pancreatic beta cells, the result being type 1 diabetes.
Scientists believe the same thing may be happening in the case of COVID-19 patients. Traditionally, COVID-19 has been an attack on the lungs, but a host of other issues and complications have come to light from sufferers of “long-haul COVID”: neurological disorders, blood clots, kidney failure, heart damage, and now many believe an epidemic of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes diagnoses may soon be added to the list.
The association between other coronaviruses and the development of diabetes has been made in the past during the SARS outbreak as well.
After the 2003 SARS pandemic, Chinese researchers tracked 39 patients who had developed high blood sugar levels characteristic of a diabetes diagnosis, within days of hospitalization with the disease. For all but six, blood sugar levels had returned to normal by their hospital discharge, and only two still had diabetes after two years.
This isn’t entirely new, either. Doctors in Wuhan, China reported a link between COVID-19 and elevated blood sugar levels back in April 2020. Italian scientists also looked into whether higher blood sugar levels could lead to a diagnosis of diabetes. That study, from May 2020, admitted more research needed to be conducted before a conclusion was reached.
Because COVID-19 is a global pandemic and the link to new diabetes cases has been observed in multiple countries, researchers globally are collecting data points about those patients in a registry called CoviDIAB.
Scientists do not know whether COVID-19 might exacerbate already developing issues or actually cause them; some believe it’s both. Many people who have had COVID-19 and have gone on to develop type 2 diabetes already have existing risk factors, such as obesity and a family history of the disease. Perhaps the increased medical attention sought out by people suffering from COVID-19 has detected the disease early, when a diagnosis was inevitable later on down the line anyway. Some medical experts believe that more people are getting medical attention than ever before, being closely monitored by experts in the field, and are unveiling underlying issues that may have been there all along.
Another theory is that elevated blood sugar levels also are common among those taking dexamethasone, a steroid that is a common treatment for COVID-19. Steroid-induced diabetes is rare, but not unheard of, and may trigger diabetes in people who have no known health risks for the disease.
“Researchers are working like crazy to see if COVID attacks the beta cells of the pancreas, which makes insulin,” pediatrician Dr. Dyan Hes said. “Some studies feel that they do, but other studies have been repeatedly saying it is not attracted to the beta-cell.”
How exactly the two conditions are connected isn’t quite clear yet, but a prominent theory is that the COVID-19 virus destroys or alters insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas possibly by binding to ACE2 receptors, according to a short letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Whatever the association is, researchers from the journal of Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism say a direct effect of COVID-19 on the development of diabetes, “should be considered.”
Francesco Rubino, a diabetes surgery professor at King’s College London, is convinced there is a connection between the two conditions and has been tracking and studying the phenomenon since early last year. “We really need to dig deeper, but it sounds like we do have a real problem with COVID and diabetes.”
Additionally, Rubino thinks the type of diabetes being developed as a result of COVID-19 may be a hybrid form, something of a cross between type 1 and type 2. His findings show that the symptoms in these patients have some characteristics of each form of diabetes, which he finds concerning.
Researchers are also now seeing a rise in type 2 diabetes diagnoses in children who have had asymptomatic COVID-19, which is even more troubling, as many schools are back in session, many public places do not require masks on children, and the tipping point of a diabetes epidemic may rest solely on the shoulders of our youngest, most vulnerable citizens.
This can also complicate a few things for people: firstly, that neither the Pfizer-BioNtech nor the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are approved for children, and secondly, that type 1 diabetes is not being prioritized on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list for vaccine dissemination. States are able to follow their guidance or dismiss it out of hand, but federally, there is no coordination to prioritize the population.
With nearly 10% (34 million people) of the United States already affected by diabetes, and another 100 million living with prediabetes, the tidal wave of COVID-19 cases could very well send our country into catastrophe fighting two disasters at once: both uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19 along with a (COVID-triggered) explosion of new diabetes diagnoses, especially in children. This would not only send our country into panic mode but could also completely overwhelm our already fragile health care system that everyone is so heavily relying on.
Scientists are rushing to find the exact connection between severe COVID-19 cases and new diagnoses of diabetes, but between diabetes being a major risk factor for death in COVID-19 cases (nearly 40% of COVID-19 deaths have been in patients with diabetes), along with the increased risk of developing diabetes from a severe bout of COVID-19, one thing is for sure: we need to find the connection and fast and get the diabetes community and those at risk for diabetes vaccinated as quickly as possible. We don’t have time to waste.
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