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‘Greater focus in coronavirus research on difference between men and women’

Scientists at Maastricht UMC+ are calling for a stronger focus on the differences between men and women in research on the coronavirus. The researchers analysed various scientific studies on medication used in treating COVID-19. None of the studies made a distinction in its design between men and women, and therefore they all adopted a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. The Maastricht researchers publish their findings this week in the scientific journal EClinicalMedicine (The Lancet).

Since the arrival of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), research has been done around the world on various characteristics of the virus and the disease that it causes. Researchers have also looked at the use of various forms of medication, such as remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine and corticosteroids. It is known that there can be differences between men and women in the effectiveness of many drugs, as well as the variety of side effects. Nevertheless, medicine often uses a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and prescribes the same for everyone. This was the reason for the Maastricht scientists to examine whether published scientific research does make a distinction between the sexes.

No distinction
From the start of the pandemic in January 2020 to mid-June, 30 scientific publications were analysed, with a focus on antiviral and antimalarial drugs and medication that affects the immune system. A quarter of the studies included twice as many men as women. None of the studies aimed from the outset to do research on differences in the effectiveness of the drugs between men and women. Just one single study included an additional, retrospective analysis of differences between men and women. However, statistics show that men more often die from the coronavirus than women (10.4 per cent versus 7.0 per cent), while both sexes are equally susceptible to contracting the virus. “That does indicate that a person’s sex has an influence on the course of the disease and recovery,” say researchers Veronique Schiffer and Emma Janssen, who conducted the study.

A stronger focus
The most important point, according to cardiologist (in training) Dr Chahinda Ghossein-Doha and internist and IC physician Dr Bas van Bussel, is that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is outdated. “All patients are given the same treatment, although we definitely see differences between men and women in the way the disease is expressed. For example, women in intensive care recover more quickly than men in the case of organ failure. Furthermore, treatments may work better for one sex than the other, so that a patient can be saved from ending up in the Intensive Care Unit.” The researchers in Maastricht therefore call on scientists to focus more strongly on the differences between the sexes in relation to treating COVID-19. Making clinical data publicly available more quickly and also sharing it more rapidly will further strengthen research.

The research was done on the initiative and under the direction of Maastricht University Medical Centre UMC+ (Maastricht UMC+), in collaboration with a number of other hospitals in the Euregion. These centres now exchange data for scientific research.

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