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High Altitude Dwellers May Be Less Susceptible To Coronavirus


As skiers, snowboarders, and mountain sports enthusiasts, a large number of us look to push higher and higher into the mountains for sport, and in some cases choose to stay. Not to mention the folks that have lived among the clouds for their entire lives, no matter their feelings on mountain sports. In any case, a new study suggests that those who live way up in the mountains may be less likely to contract viruses similar to COVID-19.

As part of this study, numbers from high-altitude regions, specifically Tibet, Bolivia, and Ecuador, regarding infection rate and total reported cases were compared to regions that were much lower. It turns out that populations living above 9,842 feet (3,000 meters) were reporting much lower numbers, in some cases three to four times less, when it came to infections or rate of spread. But, what are the reasons for this?

"We conclude that the virulence of SARS-CoV-2 is reduced at high-altitude due to the physiological acclimatization of its inhabitants, and due to particular environmental characteristics. Furthermore, additional physiological acclimatization of high-altitude living associated with increased ventilation (Soliz et al., 2005), augmented arterial oxygen transport (Lundby et al., 2007), and higher tissue oxygenation (Kimakova et al., 2017), mainly (but not exclusively) mediated by erythropoietin could be explored for potential therapy (see Soliz et al., 2020, same issue RSPNB) of acute respiratory distress associated with COVID-19." - From Science Direct Report

Simply put, the two main reasons that a virus like COVID-19 doesn't work as well at altitudes such as those studied is that the people there are accustomed to living there and the virus is not.

The environment at altitudes of over 9,842 feet (3,000 meters) is much different than those at lower altitudes. A high-altitude environment is characterized by large temperature changes between day and night, air dryness, and high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light radiation. It's well known that all of these have an effect on the human body, but it appears to have an effect on the virus as well. Specifically, the UV light radiation at those altitudes can act almost as a natural sanitizer. While just the UVA and UVB light radiation alone can not cause complete disinfection, "these radiations should shorten the half-life of any given virus (Andrade, 2020; Zubieta-Calleja, 2020b)." All of these factors seem to reduce the virus's chance of survival at high-altitudes. To put it even more simply, the virus just can't seem to acclimate to that environment the way humans have.

To that point, that is perhaps why the people in these high mountain communities have not only not been spreading the virus as quickly as those of us in the valley, but why they might recover easier. Those who live in those communities are already acclimated to those conditions, specifically that lack of oxygen the body takes in when up that high. For example, one of the COVID-19 symptoms is hypoxia or a deficiency of oxygen in the body. As these folks have already become tolerant to such a condition, it may help the body fight the virus on that level.

"Thus, 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." - From Science Direct Report

This kind of evidence could also bring about ways to help fight the infection. An example of this would be to have a person with COVID-19 undergo a treatment that mimics high-altitude living.

An interesting study, perhaps those of us that like to play in the mountains now have an even more practical reason to move to a high-altitude mountain town. That new home might help ward off illness and skiing and snowboarding could be amazing. It could also be said that maybe some of us now have a choice as to which we would rather face...acute mountain sickness (altitude sickness) or a virus similar to COVID-19.

If you would like more information or would like to see the entire report from the study, including more technical date and date representations, please follow the link below.

Does the pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 virus decrease at high-altitude?

COVID-19 infection is decreased in populations living at an altitude of above 3000 masl. * Highland inhabitants may be less susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 virus infection due to physiological acclimatization to hypoxia. * High-altitude environmental factors may contribute to reduce the virulence of SARS-CoV-2.

Photo: The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet - Credit: PXHere

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