How Researching The Coronavirus Made Me Think Scientists Are Not Studying the Right Things

It was April 2020. Coronavirus cases worldwide had exceeded a million people. The US government had enacted a full travel ban for people coming from Europe. The future looked very bleak and unclear.

I had a simple plan. Research everything I could about coronavirus. Figure out exactly what made the virus so deadly, and come up with a comprehensive guide of how people could prevent it or reduce their chances of having serious complications. I would share this “guide” to my Youtube channel, as my sort of contribution to the coronavirus effort.

I realized that Covid is dangerous because it sometimes incites a massive overreaction from your immune system. In other words, in your body’s fervor in eradicating the virus, it sometimes causes irreparable damage to your cells.

I started to think of what you could do to change your lifestyle in order to try to balance your immune response. That is when I ran into a massive problem. I realized that there are very few studies on the effect of lifestyle on our immune system.

If you search “genetics immune system,” Google Scholar returns 2.4 million results. Searching “lifestyle immune system” or “healthy lifestyle immune system” returns between 400 thousand and 600 thousand results. A quick look at the results it does return indicates that most of these results are actually unrelated to finding a direct link between lifestyle and immune response.

600 thousand results don’t sound too bad, you might say. However, after hours of searching there was only one study that I could find that studied the relationship between specific lifestyle type behaviors and immune response.

Furthermore, almost every article I could find on what caused variability between the immune responses between people cited genetics as the only reason.

While genetics clearly does play a role (every person has a slightly different innate immune system largely because of genetics), it is clear that this is not the sole factor in determining whether someone will have a good or bad reaction to a virus. So why are there no studies trying to figure this out?

I have a couple of theories on why this is, not all of them bad intentioned. First, I think it is an incredibly difficult subject to study. Let’s say that you want to study the relationship between recovery from sickness and physical fitness. What type of fitness do you use? How do you determine how fit someone is? Three pullups might be barely exercise for one person (presumably very light) and might be extraordinarily hard for another person (someone heavy). How do you control for other factors (such as how much physical activity someone does for their job)? Then comes the ethical questions. How do you make sure they recover from the sickness? Is it ethical to infect people with a sickness? What if someone has complications? All of these factors make studying the effects of behavior on the immune system very unappealing and why there is far more research in areas such as the effect of genetics on the immune system.

The second reason why there are very few studies done on the effect of lifestyle on immune response is because it is not lucrative. For the reasons outlined above, it is clear you would need a very large population to study for a long time. These types of studies cost lots of money. Who would fund such a study? Pharmaceutical companies? Unlikely. The government? Perhaps, but it seems that this is quite rare.

Whatever the reason, more money should be invested in this area. Changing your lifestyle is free and has no side effects so we could all use a little bit more knowledge on what lifestyles are the most beneficial for us.

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