Women are genetically superior. Coronavirus is killing more men than women
That females are better survivors has long been evident. You just have to see the aged wisps of female humanity tottering around the place. Women have to be tougher to cope with the burdens of pregnancy. Their systems have to provide for two lives
And it is interesting to read below some details of the genetic mechanisms involved.
But attributing the fewer female deaths from coronavirus infection to genetics is tendentious. Coronavirus is primarily a lung disease and more men are smokers. So the sex-difference appears to be behavioural, not genetic
Coronavirus is killing more men than women, according to early figures. In its first six weeks almost equal numbers of males and females were infected with the disease but only 1.7 per cent of the women went on to die compared with 2.8 per cent of the men. Scientists think they know why: women’s immune systems are stronger than men’s. They’re built that way.
Dr Sharon Moalem, a Canadian-born physician, rare disease specialist and author, has a theory that women are genetically tougher than men. In 2016 Moalem and his wife Anna were driving in Toronto. A car ran through a red light and smashed into them. “We rolled,” he recalls. “The cabin, the roof, totally caved in. We were very lucky to be alive. If we hadn’t ducked down, we would probably have been decapitated.”
They were hospitalised for more than a month with very similar injuries. But here’s the strange thing: Anna was released two weeks earlier than Sharon. “What was really noticeable was the healing time,” he says. “The superficial cuts, for example – her healing time was faster. I got more infections than she did, my infections didn’t clear as fast and I just didn’t get back on my feet to the same degree.”
His delayed recovery and the resilience of his wife did not surprise him. To him it was more proof that women are genetically superior to men. After the crash, he decided to write a book about it, The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women, released next month.
The evidence is strong. Women on average live longer than men. More men are born than women – 105 to every 100 – but, by the age of 40, the numbers are equal and, by 100, 80 per cent of the survivors are female. Women suffer fewer congenital birth abnormalities – tongue-tie, webbed toes and so on – than men. Men are about 20 per cent more likely to get cancer and 40 per cent more likely to die from it. Male children are twice as likely to suffer developmental disabilities such as ADHD, autism, learning problems and stammering. Women tend to have better colour vision than men and some are tetrachromatic, which means they may see up to 100 million colours, not the one million most men struggle by on.
Ah, you say, but men are physically stronger than women. Well, no, not in terms of survival. When Stalin’s policies in Soviet Ukraine starved millions, more women than men survived. Men are certainly more muscular and better than women at most sports requiring power. No female sprinter is going to beat Usain Bolt, and men still dominate at marathons. But men are not so good when it comes to extreme endurance contests such as ultra-marathons.
“The further the race, the more difficult the conditions, that’s when men start dropping off,” Moalem says. The point was dramatically made last year when Jasmin Paris, a 35-year-old vet and mother, won the 431km Montane Spine Race along the Pennine Way up to Scotland. “She broke the course record by 12 hours. At the rest stations along the way, she was pumping breast milk for her baby while the men were flat out on the floor.”
Moalem also cites the Transcontinental Race, a bike ride across Europe of about 4000km. Last year that too was won by a woman, Fiona Kolbinger, a 24-year-old medical student from Germany. This is happening because, increasingly, women are taking part in events once thought too difficult for them. In fact, they’re easier for women than men. Why?
“We think it is twofold,” Moalem says. “One reason is that women have a lower resting metabolic rate, so they don’t exhaust themselves as easily. The other piece of this puzzle that I looked at was famine survival, for which women have an immense advantage. I think that’s where the ultra-endurance performance comes from.”
He does not mention the rigours of pregnancy, once compared to running a marathon daily. Surely this is the ultimate proof of his theory? Moalem is too much of a scientist to go there. “Suffice to say that a mammalian pregnancy requires a staggering biological response and adaptation. Yet until we manage to get an XY male pregnant, there’s really no way for us to make that comparison and know for certain. But I would say that far more impressive even than a genetic female’s capacity to support a pregnancy to term is their ability to make it across the supercentenarian finish line. There’s really nothing biologically harder for a human to pull off than making it to 110 years of age and beyond.”
Moalem is equally careful not to draw too many conclusions about coronavirus – yet. “Yes, so far it seems that more men are unfortunately succumbing to COVID-19, but we will only know for certain a few years after the pandemic if more males were affected,” Moalem says. [The figures cited in the first paragraph of this article are based on preliminary results from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention based on data from 72,314 people diagnosed with COVID-19 as of February 11.] “Mers, another coronavirus that we do have more experience with and more epidemiological data, does in fact kill more males.”
Somehow, for millennia, science and society have managed to overlook all of this. We have preferred the strong-man myth. “As a physician and scientist, the schooling that I got was that men are stronger” – meaning not just more muscular but all-round more robust. “It took me 20 years to deconstruct that paradigm.”
Moalem knows there is going to be resistance to his theory. “I thought a lot about that while I was considering whether to write this book. It’s a dangerous idea and it’s going to upset a lot of people. It probably has already. Whenever you’re swapping paradigms, there’s a lot of resistance. But it’s such a fundamental rule of biology that ignoring it is to our detriment when it comes to the medical applications. That’s what gave me the impetus and the courage to say, you know, it’s time now for us to make a change.”
One way in which it has been to our detriment is in drug prescriptions. Bizarrely, Moalem says, scientists prefer to use male mice to test drugs. “To this day, preclinical research does not require you to use both female and male mice,” he says. Of course, there are studies that use female mice, but scientists often veer towards using males because they are less hormonal than females, which, they say, makes for clearer data. But there’s a drawback, says Moalem: as a result, doctors find that women report more side-effects from drugs than men. This is not because they are weaker, but because they are being overdosed on the basis of tests performed on male mice. Women’s bodies hold on to drugs, including alcohol, longer, so the effects and the side effects are intensified.
For Moalem, the central truth underlying his thesis is that women are better built. The reason fewer female babies are born than male is that the construction process is trickier, so slightly more female embryos and foetuses are rejected before birth. “Building a woman is an immensely complicated process,” he says. “It has to go perfectly.
If it doesn’t, then everything is lost.”
Moalem believes that the reason for all this lies deep within women’s cells. Humans normally have 23 pairs of chromosomes – gene-bearing coils of DNA – in each of our cells. But one of these pairs, the sex chromosomes, differs in men and women. In women, it consists of two so-called X chromosomes – one from her mother and one from her father; in men, it consists of an X from the mother and a Y from the father. The Y chromosome’s primary function is to produce testes and sperm, and is relatively poor in genetic information compared with the X chromosome.
For years it was believed that one of the two X chromosomes in women was effectively silenced. This fed straight into the “men are stronger” mythology. There were even novels and a TV series, The XYY Man, that suggested having two Ys made you stronger and inclined to criminality. This is nonsense. In reality, about a quarter of the genes on the “silenced” X chromosome are still active and accessible to female cells. So she has two possible sources of genetic information to fight disease, hunger or exhaustion. Men only have one. So having two Xs is, in Moalem’s view, the source of female superiority. “We now know why it’s so important, because so many of the genes that are used to make the brain are on the X chromosome. And so many of the genes that are involved in the immune function are on the X. It’s like having 23 volumes of instruction manuals for your house. But the one that is the most crucial for humans is the one about the brain and immunity. Without immunity, we’re not going to be around much.”