By Lana Sumner-Borema
While the number of positive COVID cases in Florida surpassed 2 million and resident hospitalizations reached approximately 85,000 as of late March, according to the Florida Department of Health, many young adults have chosen to ignore pandemic protocols due to the low percentage of severe cases in their age group. But are there co-infections that anyone, regardless of age, could acquire that may escalate a COVID infection?
Dr. Christoph Hengartner, assistant professor of biology at Barry, acquired his bachelors in biochemistry from Université Laval in Quebec, completed his doctoral dissertation on the regulation of yeast transcription through the enzyme RNA polymerase II from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Princeton University’s molecular biology department.
In an interview with The Buccaneer, Hengartner said he has a particular interest in “infectious diseases, defending against infectious diseases, and how microbes change entire ecosystems and have changed the atmosphere of our planet over time.”
He claimed that the SARS-CoV-2 infection is particular in how it mutates.
“The virus is changing relatively fast because it’s an RNA virus. We let COVID burn too fast. Every time a virus copies itself, it makes some errors and most of them are bad, some give them an advantage,” he said. “If it gets to multiply enough it will mutate to make itself more efficient…
He doesn’t believe we will ever eliminate COVID completely and, according to Hengartner, the treatment plan of such a virus may affect our bodies adversely.
When treating the Coronavirus, it is common for antibiotics to be given to the patient in order to prevent side-effects such as pneumonia that would harm the patient. However, the antibiotic, which kills the good and bad bacteria, gives way to fungus such as candida, inside the body.
“After the fact, we realize our simple treatments toward one infectious disease fails, there is now another infectious disease on top of it,” he said.
The candida species is a yeast in the normal human body’s environment. However, in the case of a bodily environment that is already diverting energy to fight off a different infection or is immunocompromised, the candida already present in the body will begin acting as an opportunistic yeast pathogen that can severely harm the body.
Co-infections like these are picked up in the hospital, usually from the use of ventilators or heart catheters, and prolonged ICU stays.
Researcher Anuradha Chowdhary, who reviewed a study from India that correlated candida auris infections to patients who tested positive for COVID-19, stated that candida infection was found in 67 percent of those who died. Chowdhary and her colleagues related this back to the care of the severely critical patients with high infection levels in intensive care units.
In another study conducted by Haidi Karam-Allah Ramadan in upper Egypt, out of 267 patients who tested positive for COVID-19, only 28 cases “showed bacterial and/or fungal co-infections.” However, 20 of these cases were “severe or critical cases” and none were found to be in the “mild” group.
Researchers also found that a specific variation of candida, candida albicans was “resistant to flucanzole and voriconazole,” which are the only treatments for this fungus. Resistance is another concern, said Hengartner, since “we are woefully short of alternatives for antifungals.”
Young adults should be particularly concerned because after they are diagnosed with COVID-19 and are prescribed an antibiotic, they could potentially acquire a yeast infection that is resistant to the only available treatment.
While Hengartner has not worked directly with this species, he has done research with a pseudo-candida through experimentation with baker’s yeast to study how it causes disease and developed new therapies to treat Candida. The most effective way to avoid this fungus, he said, is not to contract COVID to begin with by following the recommended safety protocol of mask-wearing and distancing.
Side effects such as the loss of taste and smell and “long-haul COVID” are side effects many young adults are experiencing, and the long-term effects of the immediate side-effects are unknown as this virus is new. Aside from following all safety protocol, Hengartner recommends getting the vaccine as symptoms from long-haul COVID have diminished after patients received the vaccine.
In closure, Hengartner wants the Barry community to know that “there is so much we don’t know, so we should be as cautious as possible.”
He is rearing up to conduct a full presentation on the topic of COVID and its side effects for the Barry community in the spring semester.