Cardiac problems and muscular fatigue among the heavily-farmed animals in the Olympic park in Rio de Janeiro probably indicate an acute infection caused by the Coronavirus, a new research paper contends.
The paper, to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attempts to explain a series of unexplained athletic deaths associated with Olympics, which concluded in August.
Olympic deaths are hard to track
The rings of Rio’s Guanabara Bay, site of many Olympic events, are teeming with hundreds of thousands of farmed animals. The leading hypothesis for the unexplained deaths of 13 Olympians from Rio was that the contamination, stress, or other factors were to blame, said Dr. Richard Wolfe, a University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist who co-authored the research paper.
This novel hypothesis is based on genetic analyses of blood samples taken from a sample of athletes in Rio. Tests compared the athletes’ red blood cells, which carry oxygen to muscles and tissues, to their genetic markers.
Over and over again, the team found genetic fingerprints that suggested the epidemic of cardiac problems and muscle fatigue could be a Coronavirus infection.
A different sport, but the same cause?
So far, only two Coronaviruses have been detected. The virus in corneas of three athletes in 2012 and the “Hong Kong or Malaysia” in 2018.
The scientists, from the Perelman School of Medicine and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, describe the 2016 Olympic athletes as being a population that fits in the warm-weather reaches of the Southeastern United States.
The team also suggests the two Coronaviruses that killed athletes in the 2016 Olympic games — whereas in the previous two Olympics, such virus testing was done, they say — could have been present in 1,000 Olympic athletes, who would have shared similar lifestyle habits.
“The scientists have an inherent bias in their work, but they’re seeking new explanations and that’s important,” said Thomas Jefferson University epidemiologist Dr. Steven Griggs, who was not involved in the new study.
Griggs pointed out that it was important to note that the scientific team is not calling Coronavirus a cause of death in Rio.
“The protocol is to indicate that there’s a natural pathogen,” Griggs said. “So if you’re looking for a natural pathogen, you’d notice that people are vomiting. You’d notice that people have problems walking. There would be many problems, but those are not the things that you would look for.”
To Wolfe, “where we’re looking at the numbers at the time we are very far from to being able to say definitively that it is a Coronavirus.”
Olympics and killer viruses
Since 1932, when the last Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France, there have been 174 cases of the Coronavirus in humans — just under half of which occurred in South Korea in 2017, Wolfe wrote in the paper.
Based on the report, “we need further studies to pinpoint the direction of spread of infection from the ‘herd’ to the individual,” he said. “Only then can more robust containment precautions be instituted.”
The best known strain of Coronavirus is a close relative of SARS, the first and most serious kind of coronavirus. SARS, which began in 2003 and claimed 800 lives worldwide, was a close relative of adenovirus, so it likely shares the same gene map, Wolfe wrote.
There are 1,117 known viruses in the human family, and Wolfe points out the study has taken a general look at bacterial strains that could be a potential source of Coronavirus. “There are plenty of bacteria in my house and in yours,” he wrote.
At this point, Wolfe does not have any ideas about how the two Coronaviruses of the 2016 Olympic games might have killed athletes. They may have carried lethal mutations that prevented defense mechanisms, or they have carried a very different pathogen.
“There is no way you could rule out” common family microbes such as E. coli, salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes, he said.
Wolfe says further research is needed to find the common infection driving