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Coronavirus gender gap: Scientists try to explain why men are much more likely to die of COVID-19

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(CBS) — When Florida couple Cecilia and Marvin Lawton were infected with the coronavirus, their daughter Briana worried her mother was most at risk because of her history of high blood pressure, diabetes and respiratory illness. But as Cecilia recovered at home, Marvin lost his battle to the virus. He died in the hospital at age 60.

“I really wasn’t expecting my dad to get as bad as he was,” Briana Lawton told CBS News’ Dr. Tara Narula. “I really expected kind of, those roles to be swapped.”

Researchers have been studying the effects of the coronavirus on both men and women, and they’ve found that men are more likely to suffer worse outcomes from the disease, and are as much as 2.4 times more likely to die.

Cecilia said her daughter, a nurse, still “struggles with the guilt that she couldn’t save her dad.”

The coronavirus’ gender gap is similar to those seen with diseases like influenza and hepatitis, which women tend to recover from faster than men. Women also generally mount stronger immune responses from vaccines.

“One of the biggest questions that I have is the extent to which these differences between men and women are being mediated by our hormones versus our genes,” said Sabra Klein, who studies gender differences in immune response to viruses and vaccination at Johns Hopkins.

Some scientists believe the advantage lies in the X chromosome, which carries genes linked to immune function. Women have two X chromosomes, while men only have one.

Dr. Sara Ghandehari is researching whether the COVID-19 gender gap could be linked to pregnancy-supporting hormones estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. She’s conducting a study on the theory after observing that pregnant women tend to have a “mild presentation” of the virus.

In the study, 40 men infected with COVID-19 will receive a five-day course of progesterone to see if it raises their odds of surviving on par with women.

“The hope is that progesterone will get to the disease when it’s at a level that there’s not an overwhelming amount of inflammation,” Ghandehari explained.

Another Florida family, the Begazos, saw husband and wife Leo and Carolina infected with the coronavirus.

Similarly to the Lawtons, Carolina Begazo had underlying conditions – a history of pneumonia and asthma – that should have made the virus harder on her. While Carolina got stronger at South Bay Hospital near Tampa, Leo was at the same hospital being intubated, with a 40% chance of survival.

A month after he beat the virus and was discharged, he was still weak and needed supplemental oxygen.

“I don’t have asthma, I don’t smoke, I don’t have COPD, I don’t have hypertension, high cholesterol, nothing,” Leo Begazo said. “I should recover faster and easier, and actually it was the other way.”

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