People with masks on waiting in line outside for covid-19 test swab collection
People with masks on waiting in line outside for covid-19 test swab collection

Rare Fungal Infection Affecting COVID-19 Patients in India

Doctors are reporting an uptick in cases of a highly lethal condition called mucormycosis that might be linked to steroid treatments for SARS-CoV-2.

kerry grens
Kerry Grens

Kerry served as The Scientist’s news director until 2021. Before joining The Scientist in 2013, she was a stringer for Reuters Health, the senior health and science reporter at...

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May 11, 2021

ABOVE: People wait in line for COVID-19 testing in Guwahati, India, in July 2020.
© ISTOCK.COM, D. TALUKDAR

Physicians in India are documenting an alarming number of cases of mucormycosis, an often-deadly fungal infection, among patients with COVID-19 and those who have recently recovered. Many of these patients had diabetes and were treated with steroids for their coronavirus infection, a combination that might have made them more prone to the mold attacking their tissues, The New York Times reports.

“You are using steroids to reduce the hyperimmune response, which is there in Covid,” K. Srinath Reddy, who heads the Public Health Foundation of India, tells the Times. “But you are reducing the resistance to other infections.”

The fungus, present in the soil and air, infects the respiratory tract, brain, and sinuses, sometimes causing a bloody nose, swelling in the eye, and loss of vision, among other maladies.  

Although the disease is not new, doctors are reporting many more cases than they ordinarily see. For instance, Sion Hospital in Mumbai reported 24 cases of mucormycosis in the past two months, compared to six cases in a typical year, according to the BBC

Akshay Nair, an eye surgeon in Mumbai, tells the BBC he had seen 10 cases over the previous two years. In April 2021, he saw 40. Among his patients, 11 had to have an eye removed. “This year is something different,” he says.  

The treatment for mucormycosis involves an intravenous injection of an antifungal medication every day for up to eight weeks, the BBC notes. Rahul Baxi, who treats diabetes patients in Mumbai, adds that carefully treating patients with the right dose and duration of steroids should help reduce the risk of the fungal infection. 

V.K. Paul, who heads India’s COVID-19 task force, told the Times last week that health officials are monitoring mucormycosis numbers but that it has not become a big outbreak.