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What do we know about COVID-19 and the development of diabetes?

This article was published on
August 5, 2021

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New-onset diabetes has been observed in patients with COVID-19. Scientists suspect that coronavirus may impair glucose metabolism by affecting the pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin.

New-onset diabetes has been observed in patients with COVID-19. Scientists suspect that coronavirus may impair glucose metabolism by affecting the pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin.

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What our experts say

There are two common types of diabetes. Type 1 occurs in people whose pancreatic beta cells do not produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone needed to transport glucose (sugar), the digested form of carbohydrates, into human cells to produce energy. Type 2 occurs in people whose bodies are not as sensitive to the insulin they produce. In both Type 1 and 2, cells cannot properly use or metabolize the glucose available in the blood, resulting in high blood sugar levels. 

Scientists have observed a two-way relationship between COVID-19 and diabetes:  1. Pre-existing diabetes is associated with an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.  2. New-onset diabetes has been observed in patients with COVID-19. 

More research is needed to better understand how COVID-19 may impair our ability to metabolize glucose, and the type of diabetes that is developed as a result of this potential symptom. Recent studies suggest that COVID-19 may preferentially infect beta cells, because beta cells express three proteins that the COVID-19 virus targets to infect cells. Once infected, the coronavirus may cause beta cells to die or change the way they function. This would result in decreased insulin production and release.

Other possible cases of diabetes that could be linked to COVID-19 may include high-dose or long term steroid use, or critical illness.

Context and background

On July 10, 2021, an eNCA video report by Rianté Padayachee entitled “Study finds COVID-19 ‘increases chance of diabetes’” was published. Padayachee reported on early data from an unpublished study by South Africa’s largest open medical scheme, Discovery Health, which sought to assess the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine. 

The text summarizing the video noted that the study “confirmed that COVID-19 is not just deadly to those with comorbidities like diabetes, but does in fact cause diabetes in up to 60 percent of those who recover from it.” This is inconsistent with quotes from the video and is misleading based on the current state of research on this subject. More research is needed to fully and accurately understand how COVID-19 may interact with diabetes.

Resources

  1. Diabetes Overview (American Diabetes Association)
  2. New-Onset Diabetes in Covid-19 (The New England Journal of Medicine)
  3. How COVID-19 Can Lead to Diabetes (NIH Director’s Blog)
  4. Study finds COVID-19 ‘increases chance of diabetes’ (eNCA)

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