Nicotine appears to protect against coronavirus, French researchers find

Researchers are giving nicotine patches to healthcare workers and COVID-19 patients to study the preventative and therapeutic effects of the drug on the virus.

Deep breaths: Smoking pollution in Tel Aviv (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PEXELS)
Deep breaths: Smoking pollution in Tel Aviv
French scientists are conducting trials to see whether nicotine could help protect against the coronavirus and reduce symptoms in those with COVID-19, after it was noted that smokers were under-represented among those who had the disease.
A recent study by Prof. Zahir Amoura from Pitié Salpétrière hospital in Paris found that, of 482 COVID-19 patients that presented to the hospital between February 28 and April 9, just 4.4% of in-patients and 5.3% of outpatients were daily smokers, against 25.4% of the general population.
Furthermore, smokers were 80% less likely to develop severe systems, the study found, according to Al Arabiya.
This observation has led researchers to hypothesize that nicotine prevents the virus from taking hold by binding to cell receptor sites, preventing the coronavirus from doing so.
"There appears to be a protective effect of smoking on the risk of COVID-19 infection," Jean-Pierre Changeux, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the Institut Pasteur, who co-authored Amoura's study, told the Human Brain Project.
"This is a somewhat counter-intuitive finding which at this stage is not understood. Because of the urgent need for a therapeutics under the current conditions, we together  published an hypothesis about it," he said.
Changeux said that two studies linking nicotine to potential COVID-19 treatments are now underway.
The first, carried out by Prof Amoura, involves giving nicotine patches to health care workers to prevent infection, to worsening COVID-19 hospitalized patients, and to severely ill COVID-19 patients in the hope of treating the disease.
The second, taking place at the Pasteur Institute looks at the relationship between the virus and nicotine. In particular the researchers are investigating whether nicotine helps to prevent "cytokine storms," a rapid overreaction of the body's immune system to the virus, which they think may be playing a part in causing fatal cases of infection.
Amoura's findings on the suppressive effect of smoking on the coronavirus were echoed in similar findings published by the New England Journal of Medicine last month, which found that, of 1000 people infected in China with coronavirus, 12.6% were smokers, against 26% in the general population.
However, Jerome Salomon, France's top health official has warned against people taking up smoking as a preventative, AFP has reported. 
“We must not forget the harmful effects of nicotine. Those who do not smoke should absolutely not use nicotine substitutes," he said, explaining that doing so can cause addiction and side effects.
Al Arabiya has also reported that smokers are more likely to have more severe coronavirus symptoms and are being urged to quit.
Additionally, Israel's Health Ministry has cited smoking as one of the major risk factors in having a more severe case of COVID-19.
People who suffer from underlying medical conditions are at highest risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19, according to the Health Ministry. On Tuesday, it shared what these pre-existing medical conditions are: heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, BMI of 30 or above (obesity), any surgery (other than birth) in the last three years and smoking for 10 more years.
Maayan Hoffman contributed to this report.