Do TB patients hold key to Coronavirus breakthrough?

Updated: Apr 29, 2020, 07:08 IST | Arita Sarkar | Mumbai

Probably because they have been indoors thanks to a month's supply of meds, or because TB drugs work the same way HCQ works on Coronavirus, TB patients seem to have largely evaded the infectious spread; doctors seek speedy study

Medical workers stamp the hands of neighbours and relatives of the COVID-19 patients admitted to Sion Hospital, in Kumbharwada, Dharavi, on Tuesday. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Medical workers stamp the hands of neighbours and relatives of the COVID-19 patients admitted to Sion Hospital, in Kumbharwada, Dharavi, on Tuesday. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Even as the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the city, a new trend has left medical experts puzzled. While doctors had expected that TB patients would be more prone to the virus as their immune system is already weak, surprisingly only two such cases have been reported by the health department. Also, officials at the TB Hospital in Sewri said that while 14 of their staff members have tested positive, the infection has not spread to a single patient.

A senior official from the civic health department said that it might be too early to draw a conclusion but a study could be done to understand the correlation between the two. "So far, we have reports of two TB patients who have tested positive. However, there have been no deaths so far. One reason for the low numbers could be that we have given all TB patients medication for a month and have asked them to stay indoors," added the official.

BMC medicos heading towards Shastri Nagar slum on Tuesday. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
BMC medicos heading towards Shastri Nagar slum on Tuesday. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

The trend has left Dr Lalitkumar Anande, medical superintendent of TB Hospital, surprised and has led him to believe that anti-TB drugs could be preventing such patients from contracting the virus. "One would have expected that the virus would have a fatal effect on TB patients since they are immunocompromised and their lungs are already damaged. However, here at the TB Hospital, we have not seen any such case yet," he added.

Dr Anande further said that laboratories like the National Institute of Virology in Pune could conduct studies on this since they have culture samples of TB as well as Coronavirus. "Anti-TB drugs penetrate the lipid coating of a TB organism similar to what hydroxychroloquine does to the Coronavirus strain. Anti-TB drugs could turn out to be an answer for Coronavirus. Studies regarding it need to be fast-tracked in order to understand how they react to each other," he said, adding that the research would also be able to ascertain whether the mycobacterium or the TB medication has an impact on the virus. While Sion Hospital reported two cases of TB patients suffering from COVID-19, the authorities of KEM and Rajawadi Hospital said that none of their COVID patients were suffering from TB.

'Evidence needed'
Speaking to mid-day, Dr Rajendra Nanaware, a chest physician, who deals with drug resistant TB cases, said, "Ideally, there should have been an increase in the number of TB patients suffering from Coronavirus since their immunity is already compromised. But I haven't seen any case so far."
Other pulmonologists in the city treating TB patients have noticed a similar trend but they are of the opinion that evidence is required before a trend can be verified.

Dr Lancelot Pinto, a pulmonologist with Hinduja Hospital, said that since the OPD of many hospitals have shut down, patients were not able to access healthcare. "Since chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has been identified as a risk factor among COVID-19 patients, intuitively, one would expect the cases of TB patients testing positive to be high. I have not seen any TB patient testing positive for the viral infection. But there is no evidence yet," he said.

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