A French researcher hopes to develop a probiotic that people can take to boost healthy gut bacteria which will help protect against Covid-19.
The research, which he hopes will produce concrete results in coming weeks, is linked to findings in several Chinese hospitals that people’s blood group strongly correlates to vulnerability to catching Covid-19.
People with France’s second most common group (O) were found to have 33% less risk of falling ill, whereas those with the most common group (A) had a 20% increased risk.
Jacques Le Pendu, from Inserm and Nantes University, was involved in ground-breaking research into reasons why blood groups affected vulnerability to the similar coronavirus SARS in the early 2000s.
The new Chinese results, which he said are being followed up in France, could lead to ways to improve people’s resistance to catching Covid-19 by boosting antibodies that are naturally present in group O blood.
In France, 42% of the population is group O, 44% is group A, 10% is group B, and 4% is AB.
Dr Le Pendu said: “These are interesting results, with the same results obtained in three different hospitals – and since then a New York hospital has reported the same thing.
“It’s just observational and doesn’t explain the reasons, but it doesn’t surprise me, as the same thing was observed in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic of 2002-03. That intrigued me and I worked on it to find out how it may work.”
He noted that, depending on blood group, people possess different kinds of antibodies.
Those in group O patients had a protective effect against the virusattaching itself to the body’s cells, while group A cells had characteristics making the virus more likely to attach.
“It’s not been done for Covid-19, but from this point of view the two viruses are very similar indeed, with very similar structures, and they recognise the same receptors, ie. they will infect the same kinds of cell.”
Dr Le Pendu said there are teams working on this now at the Etablissement Français du Sang Henri Mondor in the Val-de-Marne, another in Marseille, and another in Brussels.
“They are going to be taking this further, and I am also trying to demonstrate how it works, through experiments.” The upshot is that those with group O are “a bit less at risk than the rest”, he said.
“But it doesn’t mean that if you are O you shouldn’t take care.
“It’s quite a small difference, and less significant than other risk factors, like obesity, type II diabetes, cardio-vascular illness, or age. So people’s attitude should be: change nothing.
“However, what interests me is to see if we can use it to have a major effect on the transmission of the virus.
“Most people have fairly weak amounts of the antibodies and they diminish with age, so older people sometimes have none, and it’s not surprising they are more at risk. We would like to increase the antibodies – to boost this natural system of immunity – and we need a way that’s easy, inexpensive, and safe.
“At the moment, what I’m trying to do with my team, in partnership with Brussels, is to look at how children’s bodies produce these antibodies in response to the gut bacteria.
“We are trying to isolate the kinds of bacteria that possess these antibodies, so we could give people something to swallow containing them.”
It can be compared to eating probiotic yogurts, he said, ie. containing beneficial bacteria.
“We’ve not found the right bacteria yet, but we know they exist, and this poses no danger as we already have these.”
There is no point going out to buy probiotic yoghurt, he said.
“But if everyone had plenty of these antibodies, it’s possible that it would slow down the epidemic considerably. It would be equivalent to vaccinating a third of the population.
“I hope this can go much faster than a vaccine. In a couple of months, I will know if it works.
“I’m hoping that this can be useful as we come out of the confinement period.”