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Have You or Anyone You Know Been Diagnosed with Diabetes After Having COVID?

By Eliza Skoler

Diabetes increases the risk of severe COVID-19 illness, but does the relationship between diabetes and the virus go in the other direction? Scientists are now studying whether infection with COVID-19 could cause someone to develop diabetes.

While having diabetes increases a person’s risk of severe COVID-19 illness, the relationship between diabetes and the virus may be more complicated than we know. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many healthcare professionals have seen more diabetes diagnoses than usual, specifically among people who have tested positive for the virus. In fact, studies show that about 14% of people who were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the first five months of the pandemic were later diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes – though the timing of diabetes onset was not included.

An international research team has established a database to collect data and track these new diabetes diagnoses. The database, called CoviDIAB, is an initiative of King’s College, London and Australia’s Monash University, and currently contains detailed data logged by healthcare professionals on almost 320 cases around the world. To understand the relationship between COVID-19 and diabetes, the researchers are gathering information and need help – if you know someone who was diagnosed with diabetes after a COVID-19 infection, share CoviDIAB with them and ask them to ask their healthcare team to fill out this form.

The relationship between COVID-19 and diabetes is increasingly complicated; it’s not yet clear whether the virus may cause diabetes, uncover the condition in people who are undiagnosed, or quicken the development of diabetes in someone who is predisposed. It’s suspected that the COVID-19 virus, as well as other viruses, might be able to damage the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas to reduce insulin production. It is also possible that infection can increase insulin resistance, causing hyperglycemia by interfering with insulin signaling and glucose uptake from the bloodstream. While the vast majority of those worldwide who have been infected with COVID-19 have not developed signs of diabetes, there have been enough new diagnoses in recovered individuals that researchers are curious to see if they can document a connection.

Professor Philip Home, at Newcastle University in the UK, told diaTribe, “The issue of new diagnosis of diabetes in people contracting COVID-19 is a complex one, and the international efforts of experts in trying to sort it out are very welcome.” Home said the metabolic stress of a COVID-19 infection may, in some people, uncover diabetes (either type 1 or type 2) that was already in an advanced state of development, or it may lead to recognition of diabetes that was yet to be diagnosed. 

“Whether the virus can directly cause diabetes by infecting the cells that produce insulin, or by activating factors in the immune system which then damage such cells, has been a matter of speculation and investigation for other viruses for some decades,” Home said. “Perhaps COVID-19 will throw more light on the issue.”

Indeed, scientists have previously researched whether infection with certain viruses can cause diabetes. Understanding how COVID-19 relates to diabetes, according to those behind this latest effort, will shed light on the mechanisms behind two distinct medical conditions and the role of viruses in causing diabetes. While we don’t know when to expect answers, the more data the research team can collect the better. The project may inform care and help millions of people around the world not only during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also beyond.

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