Study shows fewer COVID-19 cases in high-altitude regions
People who grew up at high elevations might be less susceptible to the novel coronavirus, according to a recent study of the virus’ impact in high-altitude communities like Summit County.
The study, which was published by the “Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology” journal, compared case data for the virus among communities in Bolivia, Tibet and Ecuador and found that cities and towns in higher elevations have reported fewer COVID-19 cases.
According to Bolivia’s Ministry of Health website, La Paz, Bolivia, has reported 328 cases of the virus and Santa Cruz, Bolivia, has reported 2,300 cases as of Friday. La Paz sits 11,943 feet above sea level with a population of 2.7 million people. Santa Cruz is 1,365 feet above sea level with a population of 1.6 million people. For some context, Breckenridge is 9,600 feet above sea level.
“This is data that strongly suggests that high altitude is protective,” said Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja, director of the High Altitude Pulmonary and Pathology Institute in La Paz and one of the researchers on the study.
When the virus attacks a person’s lungs it causes hypoxia, a term used for oxygen deficiency in the body. Zubieta-Calleja said it’s similar to taking a person from sea level and putting them at the peak of Mount Everest. People who live at high altitude develop a tolerance to hypoxia and this may help them fight the virus, he said.
To take the theory even further, Zubieta-Calleja suggests 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 already live at high altitude.
“You have to increase the red blood cells for people in order to survive the acute phase, the critical phase of COVID,” he said.
Zubieta-Calleja said a doctor would have to inject the hormone erythropoietin into a person’s blood, which would stimulate the production of red blood cells.
“That way your red blood cells increase and when things get more severe, then you have a reserve of red blood cells,” he said.
However, some doctors are skeptical of studies like this one, because there is still so much researchers don’t know about the virus.
Dr. Erik Swenson, a pulmonologist from the University of Washington, said the study shouldn’t change how people live their lives in the pandemic.
“It could be true, but they don’t have the information to really tease out whether this is hypoxia that is living at these altitudes or is it a whole host of other factors that are relevant to those populations,” he said.
Swenson suggested the ability to widely test COVID-19 patients in these areas varies and other factors such as low pollution, healthier lifestyles and the dispersion of molecules at high altitude might contribute to the low number of cases in high-altitude areas.
One of Zubieta-Calleja’s previous articles suggests that ultraviolet light can act as a natural disinfectant, which might be a possible reason for why fewer people have the virus in high-altitude areas, as well.
Researchers also aren’t sure how long a person would have to live at high altitude in order to develop the tolerance to hypoxia required to prevent COVID-19.
Summit County physician Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos said people living at high altitude shouldn’t use this information as a reason to stop following protocols that prevent the spread of the disease.
“Because of all the other factors involved in this infection, we really can’t change anything that we’re doing,” she said. “We still have to be just as cautious about the contagious virus (and) the presence of a person who could spread the virus.”
Ebert-Santos also said that people come from all over in Summit County and tolerance to hypoxia varies from person to person.
“Even though we could say these are potential mitigating factors of COVID infection, we cannot promise any individual that they have more protection or they would have a less severe course,” she said.
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