Smoking, coronavirus, and the deaths of Chinese men

February 19, 2020, 11:16 PM UTC

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Good afternoon, readers.

What a week it’s been for coronavirus news. My colleague Erika Fry eloquently summed up the latest updates from public health organizations about the death and infection toll from the pathogen (and, given the ever-evolving nature of this story, the numbers have already shifted, with more than 2,000 now reported dead).

I think one of the most interesting developments is the growing evidence that China’s massive smoking rate is, at best, making the outbreak more difficult to contain—and at worst increasing the number of infections and deaths among certain populations.

The demographic at the highest risk is Chinese men, especially middle-aged to older patients. It’s well known that China is one of the world’s largest consumers of tobacco products. But while reporting this story, I learned some eye-popping facts about just how deep the smoking problem extends in the country.

For instance: More than 52% of Chinese males aged 15 and over are regular smokers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), compared with just 2.7% of females.

So what does this have to do with coronavirus? For one, it might help explain why the mortality rate from the pathogen is so much higher among men (2.8%) than in women (1.7%).

“The question is whether smoking has a direct impact on the coronavirus,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, tells me. “And preliminary evidence suggests that may be the case.”

That’s due to a combination of factors that Hotez and Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, explained to me—including the higher prevalence, in smokers, of a certain biomarker that the current coronavirus strain clings to.

Smoking can also undermine the immune system and increase the risk for underlying respiratory illnesses that are exacerbated by coronavirus. In short, the habit could potentially create a perfect public health storm.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


The price of whole genome sequencing has dropped to $299. When the Human Genome Project accomplished its namesake goal of, well, sequencing an entire human genome back in 2003, the effort cost approximately $2.7 billion. Fast-forward to 2020 and upstart Nebula Genomics, co-founded by the legendary geneticist and Harvard professor George Church, is offering a $299 direct-to-consumer whole genome sequencing product. The company says its service is markedly different from other DTC testing kits on the market given that it sequences the entirety of a genome, rather than just snippets. One issue to look out for? The ethics of marketing such products to consumers who may not know exactly what to do with the information. To that end, Nebula is emphasizing a commitment to data privacy and weekly reports for its customers.

A Malaysian company is using A.I. to determine coronavirus risk. Reuters reports that Malaysian firm MYEG Services is using an A.I.-powered service to screen for Chinese visitors who may be at high risk for coronavirus infection. Using a combination of people's geographic data and certain biometrics such as blood pressure readings, the system can reportedly create risk profiles for those visiting the country. (Reuters)


Buffett's Biogen bet. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is betting big on Biogen and its Alzheimer's drug ambitions. The company snatched up nearly 650,000 shares of Biogen (at a $192 million value) at the end of last year. It's the definition of a high-risk, high-reward gamble. Biogen hopes that its experimental aducanumab (once abandoned and then stunningly revived by the company last year) will pass Food and Drug Administration (FDA) muster given the dearth of treatments in the space. Berkshire clearly thinks the biotech has a chance. (FiercePharma)


Coronavirus misinformation fueled by government mistrust. My colleague Naomi Elegant dives into another dilemma with containing the coronavirus outbreak: Fundamental misinformation about the virus exacerbated by mistrust in the Chinese government. "[A]s Beijing has bungled its response to the viruswithholding early information about the outbreak, reprimanding a whistleblower who later died of the disease, and revising virus data after-the-fact—public trust in the government as the ultimate arbiter of information is starting to erode," Naomi writes. (Fortune)


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