Scientists are perplexed by the low rate of coronavirus hospitalizations among smokers. Nicotine may hold the answer.

(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

No experts are remotely advocating for people to take up smoking to prevent COVID-19, but some researchers have theorized nicotine may be playing some role in keeping the virus at bay, Vice reports. That's because there's a surprisingly low rate of smokers among coronavirus hospitalizations.

In France, for example, 25 percent of the population smokes, but only 5.3 percent of coronavirus patients have been recorded as smokers, and studies have found low rates in China and New York City, as well.

Greek cardiologist and tobacco harm-reduction specialist Konstantinos Farsalinos thinks nicotine (crucially, not tobacco) might be lessening the intensity of cytokine storms, an overreaction of the body's immune system which seems to be the cause of the most severe coronavirus symptoms. French researchers have a slightly altered theory that nicotine prevents the virus from entering cells (the difference lies in the type of receptors the virus latches onto), and they're hoping to test out nicotine patches on patients to see if they help fight off COVID-19. The French government suspended the online sale of patches to make sure people don't buy in bulk and try to treat themselves that way.

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The seemingly out-there theory has piqued the interest of scientists across the world, though many are urging caution. The lower rates could be a result of some other chemical in tobacco producing a protective effect, or it could be that the number of smokers is being underreported.

"Smokers who have developed chronic disease have likely quit because of their disease," Michael Siegel, a community health sciences professor at Boston University, said. "Many of the smokers who are continuing to smoke are doing so because they don't have disease yet. So this would be expected to skew the sample of hospitalized patients toward people who do not smoke." Read more at Vice.

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