Fat cells produce large amounts of a protein which Covid-19 uses to infiltrate human cells, according to researchers from Germany and the US.
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The experts discovered that more angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (Ace2) was produced in the fat cells of obese or diabetic patients than in other people.
It's this Ace2 protein which coronavirus binds to in the bodies of infected people, they said.
Writing in the paper, published in the journal Obesity, the team said that therefore, fat might "serve as a viral reservoir".
They argued that certain types of cell in the lungs that contain fat might contribute to patients developing pulmonary fibrosis – or scarring to the lungs.
This is “likely to influence the clinical severity of Covid-19”, they said.
Based on this, they suggested that certain types of drugs called thiazolidinediones (TZDs) which are used to treat diabetes could be repurposed to fight Covid-19.
Philipp Scherer of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, who carried out the research along with Ilja Kruglikov of Wellcomet GmbH in Germany, said he was not aware of any trials of TZDs in coronavirus patients.
He said: “We hope that the use of TZDs will be entertained in the future. These are clinically established drugs that have been around in the diabetes clinic for a long time and [are] considered safe.”
Until then he suggested: “Individuals with obesity at the upper end of the spectrum fall into a high-risk category at multiple levels and should exercise additional caution not to expose themselves.”
However, some experts have suggested that while TZDs could be useful, there is no evidence they will work at this stage.
Ian Hall, professor of molecular medicine and director of the Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre at the University of Nottingham, told the Times: “The virus enters through the respiratory tract, so it is the level of expression of Ace2 in the respiratory tract which is likely to be most important in early stages of infection.
“One challenge we have is that there are multiple suggestions of drugs which could work in Covid-19 based on hypotheses which are credible, but it takes time to assess all of these properly.
“At present we are trying to do this through a co-ordinated national strategy led by the Therapeutics Task Force and key delivery infrastructure including the Biomedical Research Centres.”
It comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the Government has ordered a probe into how factors such as obesity can affect vulnerability to Covid-19.
Last night, deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said studies showed that being obese was an "additional risk factor" for coronavirus patients in hospital in whether they needed intensive care or, ultimately, died.
She urged people who are significantly overweight to overhaul their lifestyles to help protect themselves from coronavirus, as well as other illness.
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Speaking at the Downing Street press conference on Tuesday, she said: "We have very fine evidence, actually, from rather beautiful studies, gathered from in patients in our hospitals with Covid-19 and those studies show that once you’re in hospital being obese is an additional risk factor for being admitted to an ICU or indeed for death.
"My understanding about the way to lose weight is that going on a diet isn't the way to do it.
"What you have to do is actually decide to completely change your lifestyle, you have to decide to do something that is going to be enduring, not just going on a diet.
"I understand that's a really difficult thing to do, but under all circumstances – pandemic or no pandemic – it's better not to be obese."
Meanwhile researchers at the University of Liverpool warned last week that obesity increased the risk of dying from the virus by 37 per cent.
The Sun also revealed that obese Brits may have to work from home under a draft plan to lift Britain's coronavirus lockdown.
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