By NewsDesk  @infectiousdiseasenews

In a presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) this week, researchers working in Uganda found COVID-19 patients with high rates of exposure to malaria were less likely to suffer severe disease or death than patients with low exposures.

Malaria life cycle/CDC

“We went into this project thinking we would see a higher rate of negative outcomes in people with a history of malaria infections because that’s what was seen in patients co-infected with malaria and Ebola,” said Jane Achan, PhD, Senior Research Advisor at the Malaria Consortium and a co-author of the study. “We were actually quite surprised to see the opposite—that malaria may have a protective effect.”

She said that an assessment of 597 hospitalized COVID-19 patients found only 5% of patients with high levels of previous malaria infections suffered severe or critical outcomes, compared with 30% for patients with relatively low levels of malaria exposure.

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Severe and deadly COVID-19 infections are often associated with a surge of inflammatory proteins called cytokines—sometimes called a “cytokine storm.” In the Ugandan study, COVID-19 patients with a history of malaria infections maintained normal levels of cytokines. Achan said a “blunting of cytokine response” has been known to occur in older children and adults living in areas of Africa with high rates of malaria. She said a potential protective effect from malaria infections could help explain why the pandemic has thus far not produced the high levels of deaths many feared would occur in Africa.