TAMPA, Fla. — Researchers are exploring a possible link between COVID-19 and the new onset of diabetes. 

What You Need To Know

  • NIH-supported studies have found reduced insulin production following COVID infections

  • Several cases have been reported involving new onset diabetes or diabetic ketoacidosis

  • Severe infections, like COVID, can cause blood sugar to rise, pushing some patients over the line from prediabetes to diabetes

  • NIH director blogged that more study is needed

"Recently, several cases have been reported involving the new onset of diabetes or diabetic ketoacidosis following SARS-CoV-2 infection," wrote the authors of "SARS-CoV-2 Infection Induces Beta Cell Transdifferentiation," a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

It's one of two National Institutes of Health-supported studies that found evidence of reduced insulin production following COVID infections.

"This work has suggested that you can also see infection at the level of the pancreas and, specifically, the beta cells that produce insulin," said Dr. Henry Rodriguez, clinical director of the University of South Florida's diabetes and endocrinology center.

Richard Alperin said he only heard about this possible connection in recent weeks, but he's well aware of other impacts the virus can leave behind.

"Close to a year and a half, I felt like I had a weight on my chest all the time," said Alperin. "I've had fatigue and weakness, and of course the one big thing that everybody always talks about is the loss of taste and smell."

It began when Alperin collapsed at work in March 2020. 

"So I went home and over the next two weeks, it was just bed, bathroom, kitchen, bed, bathroom, kitchen," Alperin said. "There were three nights in a row that I prayed to God that He would just take me."

Alperin said that at the time, COVID tests weren't readily available in his home state of New Hampshire. Antibody tests taken in May, September, and December all came back positive for "recent or prior infection." To this day, he said he's still dealing with long-term COVID symptoms. When he saw his doctor two months ago, it was for a whole new set of issues.

"If I was more knowledgeable, I might have recognized the symptoms, but I didn't. I was extremely thirsty - a lot. I was going to the bathroom a lot, and I lost a lot of weight. I'm thinking to myself, 'Good job,'" he said.

The day after having blood work done, Alperin got a call from his doctor.

"'I want you to stop what you're doing and get in your car and drive yourself directly to the emergency ward,'" Alperin remembers him saying.

Alperin's blood sugar was dangerously high, and his doctor told him he had Type 2 diabetes. 

When it comes to the possible connection between COVID and diabetes, Rodriguez said there's an important factor to consider. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 88 million American adults have prediabetes. That's one in three members of the population. He said this can make it difficult to pinpoint an exact cause in certain situations.

"In one case, the stress that is involved with fighting any infection, but certainly severe infections like COVID-19, that raise the blood sugar and may unmask diabetes, versus a direct effect of the infection on the pancreas," said Rodriguez.

Alperin took an A1C test, which can detect prediabetes, in September of 2019. The results showed he was in the normal range, albeit at the higher end. His reading was 5.6, with the results stating a range of 5.7-6.4 to be considered prediabetes. He said his doctor has not suggested that his case may have been caused by COVID. Now, Alperin is working to get his blood sugar under control and learning to eat differently.

As for what's known about COVID and diabetes, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins wrote in his Director's Blog in June, "The consequences of this transdifferentiation of beta cells aren’t yet clear, but would be predicted to worsen insulin deficiency and raise blood glucose levels. More study is needed to understand how SARS-CoV-2 reaches the pancreas and what role the immune system might play in the resulting damage."

According to the CDC, symptoms of diabetes can include frequent urination, particularly at night, extreme thirst, losing weight without trying, extreme hunger, blurry vision, numb or tingling hands or feet, feeling very tired, dry skin, sores that heal slowly, and having more infections than usual.

The American Diabetes Association has resources to learn more about the illness.