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How the COVID-19 Coronavirus Attacks the Entire Body

Health + Wellness
3D virus cells attacking a DNA strand. fatido / Getty Images

Alexander Freund

Of course, the lungs and airways are the main focus of attention with the COVID-19 respiratory disease. Since the new SARS-CoV-2 pathogen mainly attacks the lower respiratory tract, infected persons who experience a moderate or severe course of the disease have a dry cough, shortness of breath and/or pneumonia.

However, there are now numerous indications that the new coronavirus also attacks other organs on a massive scale and can severely affect the heart, blood vessels, nerves, brain, kidneys and skin.


Several studies and papers from countries including the US, China and Italy suggest that SARS-CoV-2 also attacks the heart. The evidence is based not only on the significantly higher mortality of COVID patients with cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure: Several studies have also shown that patients with severe courses of the disease often had elevated blood biomarkers released by destroyed and dying heart muscle cells. In many previously healthy patients, the virus infection has been shown to cause myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle.

Whether the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 itself causes this damage to the heart or — as seems more likely — the harm is done by the immune reactions triggered by the infection remains to be seen. However, acute heart damage has also occurred in the past in some SARS and MERS patients, and these SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV pathogens are very closely related to the current coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.


During the COVID-19 disease, the lung is massively attacked, but the damage doesn't always stop there: Many recovered patients have presented partially reduced lung function as a late consequence. Chinese researchers have found a milky glass-like cloudiness in the lungs of some people who have recovered from COVID-19, which suggests permanent organ damage has occurred. Further investigations must now show whether the patients have developed pulmonary fibrosis, in which the connective tissue of the lung becomes inflamed.

This makes it harder for oxygen to reach the blood vessels, stiffens the lungs and makes breathing shallow and rapid. Respiratory disorders, shortness of breath and a dry, irritable cough are the consequences; physical performance decreases and even everyday activities become difficult.

Pulmonary fibrosis cannot be cured because the scarred changes in the lung tissue do not regress. But the progression of the condition can be delayed and sometimes even stopped if it is detected in time.


During the autopsy of deceased COVID-19 patients, pathologists at the University Hospital of Zurich discovered that in some of them the entire cell layer on the inside of the blood and lymph vessels (endothelium) of various organs was inflamed.

The researchers concluded that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 leads to a generalized inflammation in the endothelium via ACE2 receptors. This could lead to severe microcirculatory disturbances that damage the heart and cause pulmonary embolism and vascular occlusion in the brain and intestinal tract. As a result, multiorgan failure occurs, which can often lead to death.

Nervous System

In more than 80% of COVD-19 patients, a disturbance of the senses of taste and smell is observed. Such ageusia or anosmia occurs at the very beginning of the infection, and COVID-19 can be diagnosed early on the basis of these symptoms. This is because in a normal flu-like infection, which is triggered by adenoviruses, the olfactory and taste disorders occur only at an advanced stage of the disease.

This seemingly banal observation shows, however, that in many patients the nervous system is also affected by the novel coronavirus SARS CoV-2. This is because the olfactory nerve leads from the nasal mucosa through the skull bone directly into the brain. Researchers from Belgium found out that the nerve cells serve as a gateway for the virus into the central nervous system.


The earlier coronavirus infections MERS and SARS already showed a similar penetration of the viruses via the nerves into the brain. When a patient in Japan infected with the new coronavirus showed signs of epileptic seizures, he was diagnosed with meningitis caused by the new coronavirus, which had penetrated the central nervous system.

Researchers from Japan and China therefore fear that in some people, the pathogen penetrates into the brain stem and damages the respiratory center there. This might explain why older COVID-19 patients, in particular, sometimes stop breathing without having previously experienced massive breathing problems due to the lung infection. It is still unclear whether SARS-CoV-2 also causes or promotes strokes.


If COVID-19 patients with pneumonia need to be ventilated, this can also damage the kidneys. Acute kidney failure often occurs. Because pneumonia often causes a lot of fluid to accumulate in the lungs, patients are given a drug that removes fluid from the body. However, this reduces the blood supply to the kidneys, and they can no longer fulfill their cleansing function.

In addition, the blood coagulates faster in severe COVID-19 disease. As a result, blood clots can easily form, blocking the blood vessels and often also the kidneys. Small infarctions in the kidney tissue have been observed in numerous patients.

In about 30% of these patients, the kidneys are acutely restricted to such an extent that they require dialysis. It is not clear yet whether the kidneys heal after the patients recover or whether SARS-Cov-2 triggers long-term damage to the organs.


The novel coronavirus SARS CoV-2 also appears to cause visible damage to the largest organ of the human body, the skin. There are reports from several countries that COVID-19 patients showed significant skin lesions.

Small dermatological lesions on the feet have occurred particularly in children and young people. These purple patches resembled those caused by measles, chickenpox or chilblains. On the toes, the lesions usually resembled frostbite or formed reticular patterns, normally caused by blood clots in small blood vessels. Sometimes, however, marks, redness and hives-like rashes have also been observed on other parts of the body.

It is possible that the bluish discoloration of the skin is due to pathological blood clotting, which could also be caused by the novel coronavirus.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.