A new study has found that vitamin D levels have a profound effect on the severity of illnesses suffered by those infected with the novel coronavirus.
According to Science Daily, a research team headed by Northwestern University looked into the health profiles of COVID-19 patients located around the globe, in countries ranging from China to Italy, Germany, Iran, the United States, and more.
The experts initially began their study after noting the varying mortality rates in different countries. Though other analysts had claimed that the discrepancies were due to differences in health care quality or age of the population, Vadim Backman, director of Northwestern's Center for Physical Genomics and Engineering, remained skeptical.
"None of these factors appears to play a significant role," Backman noted, citing the fact that he believed the health care system in northern Italy is "one of the best in the world," despite the massive fatalities suffered by the region.
"Differences in mortality exist even if one looks across the same age group."Delving deeper into the data, the researchers eventually realized that the countries with higher death rates also reported lower levels of vitamin D. After looking further into the potential reason behind the correlation, the team concluded that the vitamin was in charge of preventing a hyper-inflammatory condition known as cytokine storms.
"Cytokine storm can severely damage lungs and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and death in patients," explained Ali Daneshkhah, a postdoctoral research associate in Backman's laboratory and the paper's first author.
"This is what seems to kill a majority of COVID-19 patients, not the destruction of the lungs by the virus itself. It is the complications from the misdirected fire from the immune system," he added.
The connection between vitamin D and coronavirus severity is so strong that Backman estimated that the having adequate amounts of the vitamin could potentially cut the mortality rate in half.
Unfortunately, Backman claimed that the vitamin could not prevent individuals from contracting COVID-19. However, he maintains that it could "reduce complications and prevent death in those who are infected."
The new study could also explain why African Americans have been particularly hard-hit in the United States. The demographic is known to have higher levels of vitamin D deficiency, as more melanin content in the skin inhibits its absorption from the sun -- the main source of the vitamin.
However, despite the findings, the research team urged caution for those who planned on stocking up on supplements.
"This needs further study, and I hope our work will stimulate interest in this area," Backman concluded.