“The study compared high-altitude communities in Tibet, Bolivia and Ecuador to communities from lowlands. Researchers found fewer COVID-19 cases in populations living at an altitude of above 8,200 feet.”
CBS DENVER reports researchers believe people who live at higher elevations may be less susceptible to the severe adverse effects of the coronavirus. The study compared high-altitude communities in Tibet, Bolivia and Ecuador to communities from low elevation areas. Researchers found fewer COVID-19 cases in populations living at an altitude of above ~8,200 feet.
Researchers think there are two reasons:
- People from higher elevations (above ~8,200 feet) have developed a tolerance to having less oxygen in their blood
- The virus can’t survive as long in a high-altitude environment
COVID-19 causes hypoxia — a deficiency of oxygen in the body. People who live at altitude are acclimated to lower levels of oxygen and that might help fight off the severe effects. One of those adaptations involves a protein located in the cells of the respiratory tract (and other tissue.) The pathogen infects its host cells by binding with that protein — and people who live at high altitudes develop reduced levels of it.
“Successful acclimatization to high-altitude environment could render local inhabitants less susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 virus penetration and consequently are protected from the development of the disease-defining acute respiratory distress syndrome.”
Researchers say environmental factors may dramatically reduce the “survival” capacity of the virus at high-altitude:
“…a high-altitude environment is characterized by drastic changes in temperature between night and day, air dryness, and high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light radiation… UV radiation at high-altitude may act as a natural sanitizer,” the study reads. “In relation to SARS-CoV-2, while complete disinfection cannot be achieved by UVA and UVB, these radiations should shorten the half-life of any given virus.”
Director of the High Altitude Pulmonary and Pathology Institute, Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja, suggested a potential treatment for the virus could be to increase a person’s red blood cell count at the early stages of the disease, to simulate the biology of people who live at high altitude.