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The COVID-19 pandemic: does our early life environment, life trajectory and socioeconomic status determine disease susceptibility and severity?

Holuka, Cyrielle; Merz, Myriam P.; Fernandes, Sara B.; Charalambous, Eleftheria G.; Seal, Snehaa V.; Grova, Nathalie; Turner, Jonathan D.

A poor socioeconomic environment and social adversity are fundamental determinants of human life span, well-being and health. Previous influenza pandemics showed that socioeconomic factors may determine both disease detection rates and overall outcomes, and preliminary data from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic suggests that this is still true. Over the past years it has become clear that early-life adversity (ELA) plays a critical role biasing the immune system towards a pro-inflammatory and senescent phenotype many years later. Cytotoxic T-lymphocytes (CTL) appear to be particularly sensitive to the early life social environment. As we understand more about the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 it appears that a functional CTL (CD8+) response is required to clear the infection and COVID-19 severity is increased as the CD8+ response becomes somehow diminished or exhausted. This raises the hypothesis that the ELA-induced pro-inflammatory and senescent phenotype may play a role in determining the clinical course of COVID-19, and the convergence of ELA-induced senescence and COVID-19 induced exhaustion represents the worst-case scenario with the least effective T-cell response. If the correct data is collected it may be possible to separate the early life elements that have made people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 many years later. This will, naturally, then help us identify those that are most at risk from developing the severest forms of COVID-19. In order to do this, we need to recognise socioeconomic and early life factors as genuine medically and clinically relevant data that urgently need to be collected. Finally, many biological samples have been collected in the ongoing studies. The mechanisms linking the early life environment with a defined later-life phenotype are starting to be elucidated, and perhaps hold the key to understanding inequalities and differences in the severity of COVID-19.

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