The Bright-er Side: Catching a cold might not be so bad afterall

Cold viruses interfere with infection from other respiratory viruses like COVID-19

ILLUSTRATION: Siloam Yeung / The Peak

by Nathan Tok, Peak Associate

Did you know that in some sense of the word, every so often we experience another form of a pandemic? It’s the cold and the flu. So while the word “pandemic” might sound scary, did you also know that catching these viruses could be a potentially good thing?

According to some American scientists writing in the Lancet, the spread of the flu in Europe in 2009 was hindered by people who caught the cold. The rhinovirus’ (the cold virus) infection of human airway cells prompted cells to turn on their interferon genes to block against influenza A virus infections. This meant the cell had a 50,000 fold decrease in influenza viral load.

So what does this mean? Viruses can get in each others’ way and could change the course of disease outbreaks. A cold could stop you from catching the flu. The researchers then speculated (and this is the big one) that having the cold prevalent in a population could help us cope better with seasonal flu outbreaks and the COVID-19 pandemic. This is due to how SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus strain), like other viruses, seems to be inhibited by interferon. Just like the cold disrupted the flu epidemic in Europe in 2009, so maybe the cold could help ease the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will this happen? Maybe. The researchers say more work is needed to see how the rhinovirus affects the body’s interferon responses towards SARS-CoV-2, but this viral interference should be considered when trying to create interventions against respiratory virus epidemics such as the COVID-19 pandemic or even the seasonal flu.

At this point, humanity needs all the help we can get. Perhaps the enemy of my enemy is my friend, which applies to viruses as well. At the very least, having a cold this fall might not be all bad.