Lung airway cells of people with alcohol use disorder developed “enhanced inflammation” three days after being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, according to a study from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and the University of Georgia. 

An analysis of gene expression found that uninfected airway cells from people with alcohol use disorder had mild pro-inflammatory characteristics that were amplified after SARS-CoV-2 infection when compared to cells not exposed to excessive alcohol use. In addition, control cells infected with the virus showed a protective response not seen in the alcohol use disorder cells.

The findings are published in the American Journal of Physiology-Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology. The study has been chosen as an APSselect article for December. 

To achieve their findings, researchers isolated cells from the inside of the airway of people with and without alcohol use disorder. Next, the cells were cultured to create a model airway epithelium. Gene expression was analyzed by next-generation RNA sequencing to measure the effect of chronic alcohol exposure on airway cells. The research team then infected the cells with SARS-CoV-2 and measured the production of inflammatory factors. 

People with alcohol use disorder who also have COVID-19 have higher rates of hospitalization and death. This indicates that chronic alcohol use puts people at risk for increased severity of COVID-19-related illness. 

By conducting this study, Michael Koval, PhD, of Emory’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, and his team determined that alcohol abuse causes lung airway cells to over-react to SARS-CoV-2 infection, which may increase the severity of early stages of COVID-19. 

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