Researchers find vaping-COVID correlation

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E-cigarette users might be at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and may be more likely to spread the virus as well, an investigation by a University of Rochester Medical Center research team suggests.

The URMC team’s findings were published in a study titled “The association between statewide vaping prevalence and COVID-19” in the December issue of the research journal Preventive Medicine. They are based on an analysis of data compiled nationally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal government’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. 

The analysis correlates the CDC’s numbers of state-by-state COVID-19 infections and deaths with comparable BRFS figures on vaping. 

While the team’s investigation does not establish a causal link between e-cigarette use and coronavirus infection, it shows that states with higher percentages of vapers also had more COVID-19 cases. The study also found that states with a higher percentage of residents without high school diplomas had higher rates of COVID-19 deaths. 

“As the country comes to grips with behaviors that may raise or lower risks of contracting COVID-19, our study supports the possibility that vaping increases the risk,” says team leader Dongmei Li, a biostatistics expert.

The Li team’s work correlates with research done by URMC’s Irfan Rahman investigating possible links between an enzyme called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, COVID-19 and vaping.

Found on the surface of human cells, ACE2 serves as a gateway for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus behind COVID-19, to enter infected individuals’ organs. 

Rahman, whose investigations of the possible harms of vaping long precede the COVID-19 pandemic, is looking into whether vapers and smokers have higher levels of ACE2 and are thus more susceptible to COVID-19 infection. 

Rahman and Li are among authors of a study published in September in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology that found smoking along with aging results in a spike in ACE2 receptors and three other proteins associated with the coronavirus. 

Rahman earlier co-authored a Journal of Inflammation article that also examined possible links between smoking or vaping, ACE2 and susceptibility to coronavirus infection. 

ACE2 is normally low in young people, which, Rahman says, accounts for the relatively low COVID-19 infection and mortality rates in younger people. 

He says the next step in his ACE2 research examines whether higher ACE2 levels among younger vapers or smokers makes them more susceptible to the virus. 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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