UK researchers have identified a blood test that could help predict which COVID-19 patients are at greatest risk of becoming critically ill.


A new study by the University of Southampton has shown that testing for five cytokines, which are proteins that are released into the bloodstream following an infection, could help identify those who face life-threatening overstimulation of immune defences due to the disease.

While cytokines help the immune system suppress infection, an overproduction of these proteins can cause hyperinflammation, which can seriously harm or even kill the patient.

The researchers said their work, published in the journal Respiratory Research, could help identify which COVID-19 patients are at greater risk of hyperinflammation, or cytokine storm, and tailor treatments accordingly to modify their immune responses.

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“Our findings suggest that testing for both COVID-19 and cytokines at the point-of-care is feasible and in the future may identify infected patients and the most appropriate treatment for them, in near real-time,” said Dr Tristan Clark, of the University of Southampton, who co-led the study.

As part of the study, the scientists analysed blood samples from 100 COVID-19 patients between 20 March and 29 April 2020.

They found that high levels of five cytokines – known as IL-6, IL-8, TNF, IL-1β and IL-33 – in the patients’ bloodstream were associated with a greater chance of needing intensive care, artificial ventilation and of dying. The proteins IL-1β and IL-33 showed the biggest effect, the researchers said.

The team hope that by accurately identifying which cytokines are driving hyperinflammation in COVID-19 patients, doctors could target them with cytokine blockers. One such treatment – an IL-33 blocker – is currently being tested in UK trials, they said.

“These findings, from the ongoing COVID research programme in Southampton, have identified important inflammatory signals which will help steer the development of treatment strategies for this new disease," said Professor Tom Wilkinson, of the University of Southampton, who also led the study.


“Only by applying these techniques to stratify the condition will we be able to target the key mechanisms of the disease with the best treatment for that individual.”

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus when shopping?

You’ll have seen signs in your local supermarket advising you to keep two metres from others while moving around the store. This is key to reducing your chances of catching the virus while shopping.

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is spread through respiratory droplets that leave our mouth and nose when we cough, sneeze, or sometimes even talk. The droplets sprayed out by an infected person will contain the virus, which could then enter your body via your mouth, nose or eyes (this is why you shouldn’t be touching your face).

Respiratory droplets don’t usually travel more than one metre, so by keeping two metres from others, you’ll reduce the likelihood of being in the firing line. To make it easier to keep your distance, try to shop during off-peak hours, choose a store that’s limiting the number of people who can be inside at any one time, and use self-checkout if you can.

Keeping your hands clean is the other main thing you can do. If possible, wipe the trolley or basket handles with a disinfectant wipe when you arrive at the store. When you get home, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before and after unpacking your bags.

A US study found that the coronavirus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic, so wiping down your purchases with a disinfectant spray or a soapy cloth before you put them away is another good habit to get into.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.