A recent increase in type 1 diabetes in under-18s in parts of London has seen this morning’s media headlines report “COVID-19 could cause type 1 diabetes in children”. But experts have stressed the increase in diagnoses is not yet clearly linked to the pandemic.
Thirty children in hospitals across north-west London presented with new-onset type 1 diabetes during the peak of the pandemic, approximately double the number of cases typically seen in this period in previous years, with clusters of cases in two of these hospitals.
Twenty-one children were tested for COVID-19 or had antibody tests to see whether they had previously been exposed to the virus. A total of five children with newly diagnosed diabetes had evidence of past or current coronavirus infection.
The study is published this morning in Diabetes Care and led by clinicians at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and researchers at Imperial College London.
No clear COVID-19 and type 1 diabetes link yet
Scientists have long suspected viral infections could play a role in triggering type 1 diabetes – at least in some people.
But the authors of the study recommend a larger analysis to establish whether there is a definitive link between COVID-19 and new-onset type 1 diabetes, and if so whether COVID-19 has any impact on the severity of the disease.
Prof Deborah Dunn-Walters, Chair of the British Society for Immunology taskforce on COVID-19 and Immunology, said in a responsive statement today: “This paper reports an increase in the number of type 1 diabetes cases in children in part of London during the months of April and May compared with previous years. As not all children in the study were tested for COVID-19, the findings do not show that this increase was linked to the COVID-19 pandemic – in fact, it is currently unclear what was behind this rise in cases.”
She added: “COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, and we know that other viral diseases can act as a trigger for some autoimmune diseases, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome. As SARS-CoV-2 is such a new virus, there is still much we need to learn about how it interacts with our immune systems and the long-term effects that it might have on us.”
Prof Dunn-Walters said further: “Currently, there have been no comprehensive studies published linking COVID-19 to the development of any autoimmune disease, including type 1 diabetes. However, we are still in the early days of finding out about the longer-term effects of COVID-19 and follow-up studies in this area will be important.”
JDRF’s Director of Research Partnerships, Rachel Connor, said: “Headlines about emerging new coronavirus research can be worrying – especially when the overall picture remains unclear. But further research will help us better understand links between COVID-19 and type 1 diabetes.”
The British Society for Immunology is a supporting partner of Connect Immune Research. The project, built by JDRF and other partners, is helping scientists discover how different immune disorders are linked.
Read how JDRF is is partnering with Diabetes UK to find out how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting people with type 1 diabetes.