COVID-19 Can Infect Fat Cells, Study Finds

Fat cells can become infected with the coronavirus, which may help explain the link between obesity and greater adverse effects of COVID-19 on people who are obese, according to a study by Stanford University that is awaiting peer review.

Previous studies have shown that other viruses, including the flu virus, can infect fat cells, which are now seen as active tissue rather than inert mass as previously thought.

Scientists involved in the study exposed fat cells that they collected from people undergoing bariatric surgery to the coronavirus and found that those fat cells became infected as did immune cells around the fat cells. The infection of the immune cells triggered an inflammatory response in those cells.  

The scientists also found the coronavirus in the fat cells of people who had died of COVID-19. The concentration of the coronavirus in the fat cells was at the same level as the concentration found in the hearts and kidneys but less than found in the lungs of the deceased individuals.

If the findings are replicated by others and hold true, it could mean that future treatments for COVID-19 could involve targeting fat cells, according to the study’s authors.

Dr. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was not part of the study, told the New York Times: “This paper is another wake-up call for the medical profession and public health to look more deeply into the issues of overweight and obese individuals, and the treatments and vaccines we’re giving them. We keep documenting the risk they have, but we still aren’t addressing it.”