Scientists fear coronavirus may trigger diabetes in previously healthy people - here's what that means

Tuesday, 16th June 2020, 8:31 am
Updated Tuesday, 16th June 2020, 8:31 am
(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

As we continue to learn new things about the novel coronavirus still wreaking havoc on the planet, experts are now warning that the virus may be triggering diabetes in people who were otherwise healthy before they contracted Covid-19.

17 leading clinicians from around the world penned an open letter to The New England Journal of Medicine last week, which revealed the condition had been repeatedly diagnosed in coronavirus-positive patients.

Despite their claims, the authors of the letter admit it remains unclear how the two may be interlinked.

Francesco Rubino, professor of metabolic surgery at King’s College London and co-lead on the registry, said: “We are of course trying to understand what situation is behind the observations.”

How does it work?

Previous research has shown that ACE-2 – the protein to which the coronavirus appears to bind – is not only located in the lungs but also in organs like the pancreas, small intestine, liver and kidneys.

These organs are all involved in glucose metabolism, and scientists hypothesise that if the virus attaches to these organs, it could cause multiple dysfunctions.

This Could lead to the onset of diabetes in some cases.

Prof Rubino said: “Diabetes is one of the most prevalent chronic diseases and we are now realising the consequences of the inevitable clash between two pandemics.

“Given the short period of human contact with this new coronavirus, the exact mechanism by which the virus influences glucose metabolism is still unclear and we don’t know whether the acute manifestation of diabetes in these patients represents classic type 1, type 2 or possibly a new form of diabetes.”

Should I be worried?

(Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)

If you start to come down with any coronavirus symptoms, don't panic about developing diabetes just yet.

Dr Riyaz Patel, associate professor of cardiology at University College London Hospital, said the new data may be confounded for a few reasons.

"For example, we know that any stress-inducing illness can cause blood sugar levels to temporarily rise and we see this for example with heart attacks.”

He added: “Also, people who are more likely to get very sick with Covid-19 may be at risk of developing diabetes anyway, perhaps because they are overweight.”

What's the risk to people already diagnosed with diabetes?

It was already thought that coronavirus can cause more severe complications in patients with pre-existing diabetes.

In mid-May, NHS England figures revealed that one in four people who died in hospital with Covid-19 also had diabetes.

Between the dates of 31 March and 12 May, 25 per cent of people who passed away in UK hospitals due to Covid-19 were previously diagnosed with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Professor Partha Kar, the National Speciality Adviser on the condition, said, “It is clear that people with diabetes are more at risk of dying from Covid-19."

Jon Cohen, emeritus professor of infectious diseases at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, told The Guardian: “Patients with diabetes often have complications involving the heart, but also the kidneys, and in the same way any extra strain on the body from the infection can cause secondary problems in those organs."

Diabetes UK said, “People with diabetes are particularly vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with coronavirus because the virus can cause difficulties managing your diabetes."