When Dr Milana Frenkel-Morgenstern and her colleagues at Israel’s Bar Ilan University tied up several months ago with scientists at the country’s Leumit Health Care Services, a health insurance and medical services entity, their intention was to determine the links between low vitamin D and COVID-19-related hospitalisation. Frenkel-Morgenstern, Head, Cancer Genomics and BioComputing of Complex Diseases Lab at Azrieli Faculty of Medicine, Bar Ilan University, always knew that vitamin D is “like a steroid” that fights myriad number of diseases and health conditions and may prove to be useful in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, which comprised 7,807 people, including COVID-19 patients, found that on an average, vitamin D levels of Covid-19 negative cases were in the adequate range while those who tested position had low vitamin-D levels of less than 20 nanograms per milliliter of blood.
The announcement of the results of the ambitious study came out on July 26. Frenkel-Morgenstern tells Open that her team would now work on the link between vitamin D and COVID-19 death risks. She says that she is looking for students, from India and elsewhere, in molecular biology and bioinformatics with high grades (90/100 GPA or higher) to pursue doctoral studies in her university located in the beautiful city of Safed in Israel’s Northern District. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Are people with low Vitamin D levels also at a higher risk than others of death due to Covid-19?
We did not study deaths so far, but hospitalisation. We are shortly launching a new study to find the connection between the risk factors for deaths from COVID-19.
Could you please explain the methodology of this study? What was the duration of the study and how many patients were surveyed for this?
We examined 7,025 COVID-19 negative and 782 COVID-19 positive people in our country. The study was conducted from February 1st to April 30th, 2020.
What kind of data did you use for this purpose? Did you also factor in other risk factors such as age, health status and so on?
Yes, all these factors. In COVID-19 positive, we found significantly more males (than females), mostly aged 50-plus and with lower vitamin D levels. We, however, did not discover other factors for COVID-19 hospitalisation.
What are the mathematical models used in this study?
We used statistical analyses, univariate logistic regression analysis, univariant analyses, multivariate logistic regression, student t-tests, chi-squared tests and so on.
People with dark skin suffer more from vitamin D deficiency than others
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Are some races more vulnerable to Vitamin-D deficiency than others?
Yes, people with a dark skin suffer more frequently from vitamin D deficiency than others, and so they should do blood tests and consult doctors.
What are the preventive steps that you wish to suggest to people to maintain viable vitamin-D levels?
Consult medical doctors. Everyone can easily test his/her vitamin D levels in the blood and decide about the next steps with the help of their doctors.
I think it is important during the summer time to go to a beach and be exposed to sun for normal vitamin D levels. In winters, maybe supplements should be advised. But every person must consult a medical doctor and be aware of overdoses of vitamin D and side effects! Be careful.
What actually causes low levels of vitamin D? Any specific causes for it?
This is the “low vitamin D pandemic” of the 21st century. In modern life, we love to stay indoors, in cars, cover ourselves, do not have time to expose ourselves to the sun, we always put sunscreens against melanoma risks – all these factors reduce our vitamin D drastically. This is why we might have low antiviral responses because vitamin D is indirectly connected to viral responses as immuno-modulators. Please look up how Dheeraj Shah and Piyush Gupta have defined this problem in their paper, “Vitamin D Deficiency: Is the Pandemic for Real?”
(The paper says: Vitamin D deficiency, as defined by low levels of serum 25(OH)D, is widespread throughout the world irrespective of age, gender, country of origin, latitude of residence, or dietary practices. High rates of biochemical vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency among healthy individuals have been reported in large-scale studies from all parts of the world – the United States,(1) Canada,(2) South America,(3) Europe,(4) Australia,(5) the Middle East,(6) South Asia,(7) and Africa.(8) Severe vitamin D deficiency is common in China, India, South America, and the Middle East. In India, studies from different parts of the country have reported a prevalence of vitamin D deficiency varying from 30% to 100%).