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A study suggests lower risk of COVID-19 infection to people in high altitude regions

covid 19 high altitude research

Our honorable Prime Minister claims that Nepalese are more immune to the COVID-19 virus than people of other countries. This statement sounds absurd, mostly because there is no research to back it up. However, new research somewhat validates its statement. Somewhat, and not in anyway PM implied. The research regarding the effect (lower risk) of COVID-19 on people living at a high altitude was published in Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology.

It claims that people living at a high altitude bear a lower risk to experience the worst effect of COVID-19. It states that these people are better adapted to low blood oxygen levels. Now, we know that COVID-19 drastically decreases the level of oxygen in the blood. Thus, this might be one of the reasons why people at a higher altitude are least affected.

COVID-19: Lower risk to people in high altitude?

The researchers studied the cases in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Tibet to validate their research. They claim to have compared the COVID-19 cases in both high and low lands of the mentioned places. It is a known fact that people living at a higher altitude have increased ventilation, augmented arterial oxygen transport, and higher tissue oxygenation. That’s because they are constantly exposed to low oxygen levels. Moreover, they also have low levels of ACE2 enzyme. This is the enzyme that the virus needs to infect the host cells.

The trend in Bolivia, Tibet, and Ecuador

The study states that there is a huge gap in the level of the affected population in the areas that are 3000 meters above sea level. As a matter of fact, in Bolivia, the difference in infection rate was three folds lower than its lowlands. Furthermore, Tibet’s data suggests that the spread of the virus there does not correspond to the global trend; despite Tibet being relatively close to Wuhan, the epicenter.

covid 19 trend tibet

Lhasa (capital region of Tibet), is located at an altitude of 3500 meters above sea level. Now, the distance between Wuhan and Lhasa is around 2000 miles. However, they are well connected by train and bus. So, travel is frequent between these two places. Still, Tibet had a lower rate of COVID-19 infected people. Moreover, the data also suggests that 54% of the recorded case were completely asymptomatic.

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Similarly, in Bolivia, there were a total of just 54 cases in high altitude. Whereas the number below 2500 meters was 140. Furthermore, Ecuador, a country severely hit by the pandemic, also showed a similar trend. It had 722 cases in the higher-altitude region whereas in the coastal region the number was 2943. That indicates four-fold lower cases in the high-altitude region.

The Trend in Nepal

Now, a similar trend can be observed in Nepal as well. As per the infographic, we can see that the most affected region in Nepal is the Terai region. There are significantly more cases in Terai than in the Mountain region. And a greater infection rate means that there is a high mortality rate in the lower altitude region. So, maybe our prime minister was not completely wrong. Well, not all of us but those living at a higher altitude might be more immune to the COVID-19 after all.

covid 19 cases trend 13th june nepal

However, better adaptation to low oxygen levels is not the only reason for this trend. Factors such as drastic day-night temperature change, air dryness, UV level have also been cited.

High-altitude regions have a high level of UV radiation. And this radiation can alter the molecular bond between DNA and RNA. Thus, UV radiation can act as a free and abundant natural sanitizer. Furthermore, air density is low at high altitude. This results in a greater distance between molecules. As a result, the size of the airborne virus might be smaller here than at the sea level. Other factors include lifestyle, obesity, chronic disease, and age.

Now, though this result claims that people living at a high altitude are at a lower risk of being infected by COVID-19, it by no means suggests that they should not follow social distancing rule. They should continue to wash their hands regularly and wear a face mask to remain safe.

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