Allergy season is in full swing, and along with it, the dreaded arrival of pollen. A new global study found that increased pollen counts in the environment may spike COVID-19 levels.
According to a Fox News affiliate in Milwaukee, the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that higher airborne pollen concentrations drive up COVID-19 infection rates.
The study involved 248 airborne pollen monitoring sites from 31 countries around the globe. The researchers found a strong correlation between levels of pollen concentration and increased COVID-19 infections rate, despite lockdown measures. Lockdowns did slash the rise in infections rates by half, said the researchers.
”Pollen exposure weakens the immunity against certain seasonal respiratory viruses by diminishing the antiviral interferon response,” noted the study authors, according to Fox News and added that airborne pollen concentration levels explained about a 44% variability in COVID-19 infection rates. When pollen counts were high, COVID-19 infectious rates rose, usually about four days later.
According to WebMD, even if a person is not allergic to pollen, the airborne grains seem to upset our immune system.
”When we inhale pollen, they end up on our nasal mucosa and … they diminish the expression of genes that are important for the defense against airborne viruses,” said study author Dr. Stefanie Gilles, Ph.D., chair of environmental medicine at Technical University of Munich, in Germany. Last year, the expert found that mice exposed to pollen made less interferon and she saw the same effect in human volunteers.
An American researcher who was part of the study said that pollen may lower the body’s defenses against COVID-19.
Lewis Ziska, Ph.D., a plant physiologist who studies pollen and climate change at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in NYC, said that if you are in a crowded room with other people who may be asymptomatic and have been breathing in pollen all day, you will be more susceptible to COVID-19, according to WebMD.
”Having a mask is obviously really critical in that regard,” he said, adding that masks do an excellent job of blocking pollen.
Other researchers have found just the opposite to be true. For example, Martijn Hoogeveen, Ph.D. a professor at Open University Netherlands, found that when pollen season arrives it marks the end of the flu season and that COVID-19 infection rates follow a similar pattern, according to WebMD. Researchers in the Chicago area came to the same conclusion, adding that pollen can help block viruses from entering our airways, by competing for space.
Hoogeveen said that his study focused on just the Netherlands, where COVID-19 safeguards such as social distancing and wearing masks were consistent. He said that taking pollen and COVID-19 data from 31 diverse countries involved too many cooks in the research soup, making it nearly impossible to extrapolate pertinent and relevant statistics.
Some countries in the global study embraced COVID-19 precautions, while others took more of a laid-back approach to the virus, hoping to achieve natural herd immunity, according to WebMD. Hoogeveen said that limiting the study parameters to a single country helped control variables so we could learn more specifically about the role pollen plays in either exacerbating or diminishing COVID-19.
”There is no scientific consensus yet, about what it is driving, and that’s what makes it such an interesting field,” Hoogeveen said, according to WebMD.
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