Since the Covid-19 pandemic began earlier this year, we’ve become familiar with some of its unique signatures: a potentially-deadly cytokine storm in the lungs and other organs. There have also been several reported instances of stroke, Covid-toes, tinnitus and hearing loss, and the well-publicized, less-nefarious first signs of the virus: loss of taste and smell. Some researchers have noticed another unusual trend: very high blood sugar, indicative of diabetes—in virus-positive people with no previous history of diabetes or blood glucose abnormalities. .
Another surprising find that researchers in the UK and Australia discovered, reports Wired, is that the virus can adversely affect insulin-secreting cells, which is indicative of a type 1 diabetes pattern. But after a couple months, the Covid-19-positive-patients were switched from insulin injections to oral antidiabetic medication, in essence, shifted to being managed for type 2 diabetes.
The sudden onset of diabetes was revealed when four diabetes experts from the two countries had a Zoom conference. The Zoom call wasn’t intended as a virtual meeting to discuss this new phenomenon. Rather, the strange cases of non-diabeteic Covid-19 patients showing high blood sugar levels was brought up more or less as an afterthought. Soon after the Zoom call, the researchers reached out to colleagues around the world to see if others had noticed the same medical mystery.
Indeed, some had.
Now what’s not unique to Covid-19 is that any type of acute viral infection can spike blood sugar levels. That’s because a virus is a stress to the body and when the body undergoes stress, blood sugar levels rise. But what was unusual is that this sudden onset of diabetes mimicked type 1 diabetes, which accounts for only approximately 5% of all diagnosed diabetes cases. Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, but it most often appears in adolescence. One might expect the virus to cause elevated blood sugar levels; what’s very surprising is how the virus has, in some people, rendered ineffective the beta cells of the pancreas. Beta cells are the organelles in the pancreas that produce insulin, the hormone that removes sugar out of the blood and into the cells.
Researchers say that they are seeing both type 1 and type 2 patterns in Covid-initiated diabetes. What’s not yet known is how long the diabetes will last, and if it will ever go away once the patients have long been recovered from the highly contagious virus.
So how prevalent is this phenomenon? The researchers established a registry of Covid-19 related diabetes. If a doctor treats a patient with high blood sugar that has no prior history of diabetes, the doctor can upload the patient’s data (anonymously). Wired reports that thus far, 275 doctors have requested access to share the data of at least one patient that meets the criteria. Dozens of cases have already been reported.
If you have typical symptoms of diabetes such as frequent thirst and the urge to urinate, and you have previously tested positive for the virus, have your doctor run a blood test. The same advice applies if you still experience fatigue and other symptoms after contracting the virus.
Covid-19 may present as no more harmful than a mild cold or flu in some people. But for many others, it’s insidious and can create long-lasting problems in multiple organ systems. We can now add pancreas to the list.
Considering the soaring cost of insulin injections, with some people dying because they can no longer afford to purchase it, let’s hope that the novel coronavirus only temporarily affects the ability of beta cells in the pancreas to produce the blood-sugar-controlling hormone.