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'Profound implications': COVID ups diabetes risk 40% a year later

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March 23, 2022

Miriam E. Tucker, MDedge

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COVID-19 infection appears to significantly raise the risk for diabetes by about 40% at 1 year, indicate new data from a very large Veterans Administration population.

"If patients have a prior history of COVID-19, that's a risk factor for diabetes and they should certainly be screened for diabetes," study coauthor Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, a nephrologist and chief of research and development at VA St. Louis Health Care, told this news organization.

"It's still premature to make guidelines. I think we have to process the data landscape to understand what this all really means, but it's really, really clear that all these roads are pointing in one direction, that COVID-19 increases the risk of diabetes up to a year later. The risk is small but not negligible," he said.

The database includes over 8 million people and 180,000 with a prior COVID-19 diagnosis. Significantly increased diabetes risks compared to those not infected ranging from 31% to more than double were found in an analysis of subgroups based on diabetes risk score, body mass index, age, race, prediabetes status, and deprivation level, even after adjustment for confounding factors.

There was a gradient of diabetes risk by COVID-19 severity – i.e., whether patients had not been hospitalized, had been hospitalized, or stayed in intensive care – but a significant excess diabetes burden was seen even among those with "mild" COVID-19. The diabetes risk was also elevated compared to both contemporary and historical controls.

The study was published March 21 in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, by Yan Xie, MPH, also of VA St Louis Health Care, along with Dr. Al-Aly.

The data align with those from another study just published from a nationwide German primary care database. That study was smaller and of shorter duration than the new VA study but consistent, said Dr. Al-Aly, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University, St. Louis.

Millions more with new diabetes as late manifestation of COVID-19

"Millions of people in the U.S. have had COVID-19, so this is going to translate to literally millions more people with new-onset diabetes. Better to identify them early so they can be adequately treated," Dr. Al-Aly said in an interview.

"The long-term implications of SARS-CoV-2 infection increasing diabetes risk are profound," Venkat Narayan, MD, and Lisa R. Staimez, PhD, both of the Rollins School of Public Health and Emory Global Diabetes Research Center at Emory University, Atlanta, said in an accompanying editorial.

"With large and growing numbers of people worldwide infected with SARS-CoV-2 (434,154,739 cumulative cases by Feb. 28, 2022), any COVID-19-related increases in diabetes incidence could lead to unprecedented cases of diabetes worldwide – wreaking havoc on already over-stretched and under-resourced clinical and public health systems globally, with devastating tolls in terms of deaths and suffering," they added.

Medscape Medical News contributor Eric Topol MD, of Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif., agrees. He said these new data "are most profound. The researchers found a 40% increase in diabetes that wasn't present at 1 month after COVID-19 but at 1 year, it was. Some kind of late manifestation is happening here."

Dr. Al-Aly told this news organization that the mechanisms for the association are unknown and likely to be heterogeneous. Among the people who already had risk factors for type 2 diabetes, such as obesity or metabolic syndrome, SARS-CoV-2 could simply accelerate that process and "put them over the edge" to overt diabetes.

However, for those without diabetes risk factors, "COVID-19 with all the inflammation it provokes in the body could be leading to de novo disease." (Diabetes status was ascertained by ICD-10 codes and only about 0.70% of the total were recorded as type 1 diabetes. But, since autoantibody testing wasn't routinely conducted, it's unknown how many of the cases may have been type 1 misclassified as type 2, Dr. Al-Aly acknowledged.)

Diabetes risk significantly increased after COVID-19 in all analyses

The analysis included 181,280 patients in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care database with a COVID-19 diagnosis who survived for at least 30 days afterward during March 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021, with 4,118,441 contemporary controls without COVID-19 seen during 2019, and a historical control group of 4,286,911 people seen at the VA in 2017. Average follow-up was about a year.

Compared with the contemporary controls, the COVID-19 group had an excess diabetes burden of 13.46 per 1,000 person-years with a hazard ratio of 1.40. They had an increased 12.35 per 1,000 person-year risk for incident use of glucose-lowering medications, with a hazard ratio of 1.85. Similar results were seen with the historical controls.

Subgroup analyses showed an increased risk for diabetes following COVID-19 infection by age (≤ 65 years and > 65 years), race (White and Black), sex (male and female), BMI categories (> 18.5 to ≤ 25 kg/m², > 25 to ≤ 30 kg/m², and > 30 kg/m²), and area deprivation index quartiles. The increased risk was also seen across diabetes risk score quartiles.

Notably, COVID-19 significantly elevated the diabetes risk by 59% even for the subgroup with BMI between 18 and 25 kg/m², and by 38% among those with the lowest diabetes risk score quartile.

The COVID-19 population included 162,096 who were not hospitalized, 15,078 hospitalized, and 4,106 admitted to intensive care. Here, the hazard ratios for diabetes compared to the contemporary controls were 1.25, 2.73, and 3.76, respectively, all significant.

Dr. Al-Aly said that his group is now further analyzing the VA data for other outcomes including cardiovascular disease and kidney disease, as well as the now well-documented long COVID symptoms including fatigue, pain, and neurocognitive dysfunction.

They're also investigating the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine to see whether the risks are mitigated in the case of breakthrough infections: "We're doing a broad systematic assessment. The next paper will be more comprehensive."

Dr. Narayan and Dr. Staimez wrote: "The potential connection between COVID-19 and diabetes highlights that infectious diseases (eg, SARS-CoV-2) and chronic diseases (eg, diabetes) cannot be viewed in siloes. When we emerge out of the pandemic, the much-neglected non-communicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, will continue their relentless trajectory, possibly in an accelerated manner, as the leading burdens of global health."

Dr. Al-Aly declared support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the submitted work. He has received consultation fees from Gilead Sciences and funding (unrelated to this work) from Tonix Pharmaceuticals. He is a member of the board of directors for Veterans Research and Education Foundation of Saint Louis, associate editor for the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, and a member of multiple editorial boards. Dr. Narayan and Dr. Staimez have received support from the National Institutes of Health.

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