UNCG Magazine

Studying the selenium data in China

AN INTERNATIONAL TEAM OF RESEARCHERS, including UNCG Biochemistry professor Ethan W. Taylor, has identified a significant association between COVID-19 prognosis and regional selenium status in China.

Selenium is an essential dietary trace element that over the last 40 years has been found to be a significant factor affecting the incidence, severity, or mortality of various viral diseases, in animals and humans. This has been studied most extensively in the case of HIV and AIDS, where selenium
status has proven to be an important determinant of disease progression and mortality. As China has geographical regions known to have either extremely high or low soil selenium levels, one of the first human diseases associated with selenium deficiency was identified there, in a region of Heilongjiang province named Keshan.

Keshan disease, involving a potentially fatal weakening of the heart, eventually proved to have a viral cofactor (Coxsackievirus), but its incidence and severity were greatly reduced through dietary selenium supplementation. Other diseases associated with viral infections that had been endemic in these low selenium regions of China have been at least partially controlled or treated by selenium supplementation. These include liver cancer associated with hepatitis viruses and “epidemic hemorrhagic fever” associated with hantavirus infections.

“Considering this history of viral infections that can be exacerbated by selenium deficiency, we hypothesized that selenium status might be a factor in the outcome of COVID-19,” Taylor said. “The study was made possible by the fact that for many cities in China there is accurate published data on the average level of selenium in human hair, which is highly correlated to dietary intake.”

For 17 cities outside Hubei, the researchers were able to show a significant positive relationship between the reported COVID-19 cure rate and selenium status, although they emphasize that this is not proof of a causal relationship, as many possible confounding factors (such as age and comorbid conditions) were not accounted for in their study.

However, the results do indicate further research in this area is necessary and may guide ongoing public health decisions.

The international collaboration was led by Dr. Margaret P. Rayman at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. The research was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“These findings are particularly significant for myself and Professor Jinsong Zhang” (who are joint first authors on the new study), he added, “because we had presented research findings at an international symposium on SARS in Beijing in 2003, strongly suggesting that selenium would be a factor in SARS pathogenesis. Many of those observations we made 17 years ago still apply to the SARS- Coronavirus-2, the cause of COVID-19, which is a close relative of the original SARS virus.”

See related story, on North Carolina selenium research.

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