Scientists say unprepared immune cells appear to be responding to the coronavirus with a devastating release of chemicals, inflicting damage that may endure long after the threat has been eliminated.
“If you have a brand-new virus and the virus is winning, the immune system may go into an ‘all hands on deck’ response,” said Dr. Nina Luning Prak, co-author of a January study on COVID and the immune system. “Things that are normally kept in close check are relaxed. The body may say, ‘Who cares? Give me all you’ve got.'”
While all viruses find ways to evade the body’s defenses, a growing field of research suggests that the coronavirus unhinges the immune system more profoundly than previously realized.
Some COVID survivors have developed serious autoimmune diseases, which occur when an overactive immune system attacks the patient, rather than the virus. Doctors in Italy first noticed a pattern in March 2020, when several COVID patients developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which the immune systems attacks nerves throughout the body, causing muscle weakness or paralysis. As the pandemic has surged around the world, doctors have diagnosed patients with rare, immune-related bleeding disorders.
In a report published in October, researchers even labeled the coronavirus “the autoimmune virus.”