Geneticists who specialise in studying the immune response difference between the sexes believe that women have protective powers against superbugs and infections.
At a time when the world has turned upside down for most of us and we have all learned how to pronounce the word “epidemiological” correctly, some surprising facts related to Covid-19 are emerging. Among the gloomy daily figures of infection rates and deaths, it’s becoming apparent that fewer women are dying from the virus than men. That men are the weaker sex will come as no surprise to women, but will be a huge shock to the macho-male. So why is it happening?
To get a sense of numbers, consider some recently published data from the Global Health 50:50 Gender Equality Initiative based at University College London. They have concluded that to date in all 12 countries which have broken down their data by gender, the majority of those who have died from coronavirus are male. For example, in China, where the virus moved from bats to humans, women made up 49% of confirmed cases and men 51%, but almost two thirds of those who died were male. In Italy, men made up 58% of confirmed cases and 71% of deaths. In Denmark, the figures are almost identical to Italy, 60% and 71%. In Germany the figures are 55% and 66%. In Spain men made up 51% of confirmed cases and 65% of deaths, with similar figures in the Netherlands. In Switzerland, France, Portugal and South Korea, men made up a minority of confirmed cases, but still a large majority of deaths. Portugal shows the biggest gender gap, with twice as many men dying as women.
There are several possible reasons for this difference, among which are lifestyle and biology. Take a look at the records available to date and you will see that many of those who have died had existing health issues, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and chronic lung disease, all of which by and large have affected men more than women. Worldwide, men on average tend to indulge in more risky lifestyles than women, such as smoking and drinking. It’s well known that smoking damages the lungs, often leading to lung cancer, so it’s not surprising that the lung-attacking coronavirus will cause more deaths among smokers. In China, for instance, about 50% of men smoke compared with only 2% of women, resulting in the greater number of male deaths.
A more mundane lifestyle reason why men are more likely to die from coronavirus is due to different sanitary perceptions. Studies have shown that men wash their hands less frequently than women. For many women, daily work is around the house and looking after children, so they are always having to wash their hands. Many feminists believe that men are naturally resistant to soap and water, but then the average male is usually away from home at work all day, frequently with limited hand washing facilities. One of the great lessons of self-preservation against the coronavirus is the importance of hand washing.
Lifestyle difference alone, however, cannot explain the preponderance of male deaths, as in many developed countries men and women lead similar lives. Yet in these countries more women are surviving coronavirus. Here, biology can shine some light.
Geneticists who specialise in studying the immune response difference between the sexes believe that women have protective powers against superbugs and infections. It’s known that women react more aggressively to vaccines and infections, so that women’s bodies fight harder when attacked by a virus. Part reason for this is that women have two “x” chromosomes, and a number of the immune genes are located on these. It’s particularly relevant that the gene which encodes the protein that senses the coronavirus is actually on the “x” chromosome. This means that the response females make to coronavirus is generally much stronger than the one made by males. Testosterone is also known to be immunosuppressive, and past studies show that men who have a higher testosterone level usually have a lesser response to the flu vaccine. This will also be true against coronavirus. By contrast, women have a much smaller level of testosterone and are therefore less immunosuppressive, giving them greater protection.
So why have women developed this way? Some experts believe that the reason is all to do with evolution. Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have, while men keep on producing sperm. As women have a finite number of eggs, it’s important for them to “self-preserve” to give them the best chance of reproduction. This self-sense of preciousness and survival could be the reason why women may not suffer from coronavirus at all!
The British playwright and poet, William Golding, once wrote: “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men. They are far superior, and always have been.” The coronavirus is proving they are biologically stronger, too.