Science & Technology



Coronavirus kills some people and hardly affects others: How is that possible?

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

The new coronavirus is not an equal opportunity killer.

We know COVID-19 is more deadly the older you get. It's also more dangerous for those who have chronic lung disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, weakened immune systems and other underlying health issues.

And yet our news feeds are full of stories about seemingly healthy young people who are quickly struck down, like 32-year-old Jessica Beatriz Cortez or a 25-year-old pharmacy tech from La Quinta.

These tragic deaths seem all the more confounding when you consider a flurry of new scientific studies that suggest as many as 20% of people who are infected with the coronavirus -- and possibly many more -- never develop any symptoms.

This lucky group is spared the dry cough, fever and body aches we now associate with COVID-19, even while the virus proliferates in their bodies and potentially spreads to others.

This new understanding about the role of "silent spreaders" is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health authorities are now suggesting that people wear masks when they leave the house. The recommendation is primarily designed to keep asymptomatic people from unwittingly spreading a disease they may not even know they have.


But how can the same virus affect people so differently -- killing some while leaving others blissfully unaware that they have been infected at all?

The Los Angeles Times spoke with two infectious disease experts -- Dr. Otto Yang of the University of California, Los Angeles and Dr. Edward Jones-Lopez of the University of Southern California -- to answer that question.

One thing to keep in mind before we continue: It is possible that the information you read below will be contradicted in the coming weeks or that gaps in knowledge today will soon be filled as scientists continue to study the virus.

"There is an explosion of research about this, and what we know about it is changing almost by the hour," Jones-Lopez said.


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