‘Historically, we’ve preferred to study the male body’
The coronavirus is killing men at higher rates than women, even though infection rates are more or less the same. That’s because the male body and the female body respond differently to viruses. But unlike many other countries, the U.S. is not systematically tracking Covid-19 gender data.
Francesca Donner, who heads our Gender Initiative, spoke with Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women,” and Alisha Haridasani Gupta, gender reporter for The Times. Their conversation is excerpted from the In Her Words newsletter:
Francesca: We know differences between male and female immune systems exist, yet we know very little about them.
Caroline: The reason we don’t know that much is that, historically, we’ve preferred to study the male body.
We do know the female immune system is more active than the male immune system. The hypothesis is that it’s because women give birth and the female immune system has evolved around that. That can be bad for women in that women make up 80 percent of those with autoimmune diseases. Women also tend to have more frequent and more adverse reactions to vaccines.
The result is that we are less good at diagnosing diseases in women. If you look at something like heart disease in the U.K., women are 50 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed than men. One outcome is that in the U.S. and the U.K., women are more likely than men to die following a heart attack. And yet you still encounter so much resistance in the research community, who say things like, “The female body is too complicated, the menstrual cycle will interfere with the results.”
Francesca: Alisha, give us a little background on the sex data being collected.
Alisha: The U.S. is one of 11 countries that isn’t systematically tracking infections and deaths by men and women. Since we published the sex-data article, the Centers for Disease Control did release a report that included a race and a sex breakdown. But even that was a snapshot, drawing information from hospital networks in parts of 14 states.
Francesca: What implications does this have in our search for a vaccine?
Alisha: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is already in phase one human trials for a potential vaccine on 45 healthy adults. It said it would need a larger number of participants to be able to disaggregate data by sex. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to have disaggregated data right from phase one — because Johnson & Johnson said that’s what it’s going to do as it heads into human trials in September.
That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.
To Melissa Clark for the recipe, and to Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the rest of the break from the news. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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