Excessive alcohol consumption may increase your risk of catching Covid-19 by creating conditions in the body that facilitate infection. This is the warning of a study by researchers from Germany who used a rodent model to explore the impact of prolonged alcohol exposure on the enzymes involved in Covid infection. They found that chronic drinking increases the levels in the lungs of the ACE2 enzyme that coronavirus uses to attach to and enter cells — and therefore may also increase the risk of contracting the virus upon exposure.
In their study, psychopharmacologist Marion Friske of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany and her colleagues exposed lab rats to ethanol vapour in a scientific model of chronic alcohol use and alcohol dependence.
They then analysed how exposure to alcohol affected those organs that are typically infected in Covid cases — the lungs, brain, heart, kidney and liver.
In particular, the team analysed the impact on three enzymes typically involved in SARS-CoV-2 infection, the virus that causes Covid-19.
These were ACE2, the receptor that Covid attaches to as the first step in entering and infecting a healthy cell; TMPRSS2, which primes the virus’s spike proteins; and Mas, which triggers a protective, anti-proliferative and anti-inflammatory effect after the virus enters the cell.
The researchers found that — following chronic alcohol exposure — the ACE2 levels in the rats’ lungs increased.
This, they warned, could lead to an increased probability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus entering and infecting the cells of the lungs.
This finding may explain past epidemiological data which have indicated that people with alcohol use disorder tend to have higher rates of Covid and more severe infections.
Furthermore, the team also noted that after a period of abstinence from alcohol exposure that the rats had an increased anti-inflammatory response, suggesting that there may be a protective effect from stopping heavy drinking.
For TMPRSS2, meanwhile, exposure to alcohol led to an overall increase in levels of the enzyme, without any observed organ-specific effects.
This, the team noted, could mean that blood alcohol concentration has the potential to accelerate the rate at which Covid can infiltrate the body’s cells.
Ms Friske and her colleagues noted that brain tissue appeared, for the most part, to be less vulnerable to the virus-promoting effects of alcohol.
The exceptions, however, were the olfactory bulbs — the rounded masses of tissue that contain nerve cells involved in the sense of smell — where levels of the protective enzyme Mas were found to decrease.
This, they explained, might result in a lower anti-inflammatory response in the bulbs and “intensify the disease progression towards anosmia”, the scientific term for a loss of smell.
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The researchers concluded: “our study provides evidence on the molecular level that chronic alcohol consumption constitutes a potential risk factor for SARS-CoV2 infection.
“However, this study represents only an indirect indication of potential vulnerability to SARS-CoV2 infection in individuals who chronically consume alcohol and does not allow any conclusion on severity of Covid-19 disease progression – with one exception that chronic alcohol consumption may promote anosmia.
“To fully state the potential impact of chronic alcohol consumption on SARS-CoV2 infection risk and Covid-19 disease outcome, additional research needs to be performed.
“We suggest analysis of SARS-CoV2 infection-relevant genes in alcohol-exposed rodents which are infected with SARS-CoV2.”
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research.