People who died of COVID-19 had a much higher viral load in their lungs compared to those who survived, a new study has shown.

This build-up of coronavirus in the lungs is likely to be the cause of sharp death rates when the pandemic struck, researchers from NYU Grossman School of Medicine have said.

The findings also contradict previous suggestions that simultaneous infections, including bacterial pneumonia, can increase the risk of death.

Researchers found that on average, people who died of COVID-19 had 10 times the amount of virus in their lungs compared to those who survived.

The study’s lead author Dr Imran Sulaiman, an adjunct professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone Health, said: “Our findings suggest that the body’s failure to cope with the large numbers of virus infecting the lungs is largely responsible for COVID-19 deaths in the pandemic.”

The team collected bacterial and fungal samples from the lungs of 589 people and looked at the amount of virus found in their lower airways.

The findings also highlighted that those who died had, on average, half the amount of an immune chemical that fights coronavirus compared to those who survived COVID-19.

Study senior author Dr Leopoldo Segal, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone, said: “These results suggest that a problem with the adaptive immune system is preventing it from effectively combating the coronavirus.

“If we can identify the source of this issue, we may be able to find an effective treatment that works by bolstering the body’s own defenses.”

The study has been published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

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