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Unpacking a Medical Challenge

How the immune system fights a virus—and why COVID-19 is different from the others

By Michael Biamonte

COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, is a new pathogen the human body has never encountered, which makes the immune system respond abnormally, with a cytokine storm that can be lethal. 

Cytokines are the immune system’s initial defense mechanism. They don’t identify a specific target; their job is to kill—like a SWAT team storming a building and destroying everything in sight. This extreme inflammatory response is somewhat similar to a severe pharmaceutical drug reaction, the type that killed the actor and martial artist Bruce Lee.

When the body has encountered a particular pathogen before, it produces a targeted immune response designed to kill the virus but not the host. Memory B cells are the part of the immune system that “tags” a pathogen, like detectives going onto a crime scene and tagging the evidence. So when they see that pathogen again, they know what it is and how to kill it. 

No Self-Defense

Because humans had never encountered COVID-19 before this outbreak, they have no memory B cells to target it. As a result, the human body can’t quickly produce the necessary antibodies to defend itself, and the coronavirus can duplicate viciously. 

It’s also important to understand that a virus can change to protect itself. It can mutate, grow, replicate and so forth, creating multiple “motifs” in order to cloak itself from recognition and targeting by the immune system.

When the immune system is fighting a virus, it typically produces multiple types of antibodies to fight against different motifs. That works better with some viruses than others. An extremely potent virus, like H1N1, has familiar motifs that our memory B cells remember and can target, but also new motifs that our immune system doesn’t recognize and can’t kill. We’ve seen that when there are even a few new motifs in those viruses, many people have died. This time, it’s likely that all the motifs of the coronavirus are new. Fighting it will be challenging. 

The good news is that as the coronavirus continues to spread, there are incredible doctors researching and testing drugs and herbs that will help prevent and treat this virus. In fact, CNN just reported that Chinese Medicine has been used successfully to treat infected patients in China. 

To read my full article on preventing and treating coronavirus, visit 

Michael Biamonte, CCN, is the founder of The Biamonte Center for Clinical Nutrition, located at 2185 34th Ave., Suite 14D, Astoria, NY.

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