Do people with selenium deficiency get sicker from the corona virus?

Selenium on the periodic table (large view)

Selenium on the periodic table

(17-04-2020) Ghent University, UZ Gent and AZ Jan Palfijn Gent are starting research about the relation between selenium deficit and the course of the COVID-19 disease.

Ghent University, UZ Gent and AZ Jan Palfijn Gent are starting an investigation in which they will examine whether the selenium status in the blood can help predict the course of the disease after an infection with COVID-19.

The researchers will measure the selenium status in the blood of COVID-19 patients.

In Flanders, a large part of the population has a selenium deficiency. Many absorb too little selenium through food, and the selenium status in our blood is often lower than recommended. Since previous studies showed a link between selenium deficiency and inflammation after viral infections, the research team now wants to clarify the possible role of adequate selenium status in the disease course of COVID-19.

What is Selenium?

Selenium is an essential trace element with a protective effect. It is in a series of enzymes that are involved in the functioning of the immune system, among other things.

The enzymes are also antioxidants: they absorb chemicals that cause damage to tissues and the genetic material, for example in inflammation after viral infections.

In Western Europe, selenium deficiencies have already been diagnosed in the elderly, obese and those with weakened immune systems.

Link between selenium deficiency and inflammation after viruses

The connection between selenium and viral infections has already been shown in several other viruses. For example, the course of Ebola disease in Africa has been linked to selenium deficiencies. In one region of China, selenium deficiencies have been linked to inflammation of the heart muscle after infection with a specific virus. And with HIV infections, extra selenium is already being administered.

Selenium can also play a role in the treatment of COVID-19. For example, recent research from China found that a particular component in lab cultures showed the best antiviral activity against COVID-19. That component is called ebselen and contains selenium.

Selenium deficiency in most affected COVID-19 patients

In Flanders it has already been established that the selenium status and selenium intake via food is lower than recommended in a significant part of the population.

However, the selenium status in the blood of the most severely affected COVID-19 patients, including the elderly, obese people and a weakened immune system, has not yet been investigated.

Studies conducted in Sweden, Italy and Spain have already shown that a large proportion of these population groups have selenium deficiencies in their blood.

In Finland, where selenium has been added to fertilizers to increase selenium intake to optimal levels since the 1980s, COVID-19 appears to be less harmful, although other factors may also be responsible.

The research team, coordinated by UGent, hopes to clarify the possible role of adequate selenium status in the near future.

Selenium in food

A healthy and varied diet helps prevent a selenium deficiency.

Especially in fish and certain types of nuts, especially Brazilian, there is a lot of selenium. Meat, whole grain cereals and dairy products also make an important contribution to selenium intake.

In vegetable products, such as vegetables and grain products, the amount depends mainly on the selenium content in the soil on which these vegetable crops are grown.

In Western Europe, the selenium content in the soil is typically low. The soil is depleted by intensive agriculture and selenium is not in the fertilizers, because it is not an essential substance for the crops themselves. Selenium is added to animal feed, which means that selenium can be found in meat.

However, some populations, such as the elderly, do not absorb selenium as well as others. The selenium level in our blood is therefore not only determined by what we eat.

Warning: too much selenium can be harmful

It is very important to mention that too high a selenium intake when taking dietary supplements can be harmful. That is why it is very important that we know the status of the selenium level in the blood before taking any supplements.
This research therefore also wants to contribute to the further development of a test that can measure selenium status directly with one drop of blood from the finger. This should be possible at home, in residential care centers or during therapy.

The Research team

The research team consists of Prof. Gijs Du Laing (coordinator) and Prof. Carl Lachat (both UGent, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering), Prof. Sarah De Saeger and Dr. Marthe De Boevre (UGent, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences), Prof. Mirko Petrovic (UZ Gent and UGent, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences) and Dr Louis Ide (AZ Jan Palfijn Ghent).


Prof. Gijs Du Laing
Faculty of Bioscience Engineering


Press release (Dutch)