Are glyphosate and COVID-19 connected? Glyphosate, one of the most toxic chemicals in the world, may be the key to why some people get severely ill from COVID-19. An MIT senior research scientist reports:
By Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D.
Special to JenniferMargulis.net
The pandemic that we have long been told is coming any day now has unfortunately arrived. A new strain of coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2, causing the new disease called COVID-19, has taken the world by storm, practically shutting down the global economy and overwhelming hospital systems.
I am a senior research scientist at MIT. I have devoted over 12 years to trying to understand the role of toxic chemicals in the deterioration of human health. I have been particularly focused on figuring out what has been driving the skyrocketing rates of autism in America and around the world. My research strongly suggests that glyphosate (the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup) is a primary cause of the autism epidemic in the United States. When the COVID-19 pandemic began its march across the world, I started to consider whether glyphosate might play a role.
If there is indeed a connection between glyphosate and COVID-19, understanding why and how they’re connected could play a critical role in combating this pandemic.
Corona viruses are the cause of the common cold, a nuisance for sure, but usually not considered dangerous. Somehow this one is different. It seems to ferociously attack the lungs, causing the immune system to launch a so-called “cytokine storm,” an exaggerated response by the immune system to an infection that can lead to collateral damage to the lung tissues.
The molecules that are released cause extensive oxidative damage, overwhelming antioxidant defenses. The lungs get destroyed by the body’s own immune system, and the process can terminate either in asphyxiation due to insufficient oxygen, or a complete blood meltdown with massive clot formations throughout the vasculature, often associated with sepsis and/or multiple organ failure.
But such disastrous outcomes only happens in a small percentage of those who are infected. Others experience only a bad cold, or even a mild cold or, remarkably, no symptoms at all. My colleague’s 20-year-old daughter had a CDC-confirmed case. But she had only two symptoms: fatigue and a loss of a sense of smell.
What’s the difference between the people who rapidly succumb to the virus and tragically die, like this father and teacher in New York , and people, like my colleague’s daughter, who barely notice they are sick?
And what’s the difference between the geographical locations where the virus is causing a serious crisis and those that hardly notice a departure from normalcy?
I believe the answer may lie in the state of health of the person’s innate immune system.
The human immune system consists of an “innate” component that is always active and normally very competent to clear most infections that come along, and an “adaptive” component which is a second-line defense system called into play when the innate system is overwhelmed.
The innate component produces a number of different specialized proteins that can hunt down and trap viruses, delivering them to macrophages for clearance.
The adaptive immune system has basically two branches, one of which produces a “cytokine storm” in an attempt to “shoot” the rapidly proliferating viruses with toxic molecules. The other branch produces antibodies that are specific to the infective agent, but this can lead to autoimmune disease down the road through a process called molecular mimicry.
If the innate immune system is broken, the adaptive system goes into overdrive. When this happens there can be sufficient collateral damage to ultimately kill the host.
Robert and Elizabeth Mar were a couple who lived in Seattle. They ran a popular restaurant in the section of the city called Maple Leaf . Tragically, they both succumbed to COVID-19 and died within two days of each other.
The Mars were both in their 70s, so they match the profile of increased susceptibility due to older age. But perhaps a more significant factor was the fact that their restaurant was located just a few blocks from Interstate 5, an 8-lane highway where trucks, buses, and cars passed by all day long, spewing out toxic exhaust fumes.
Why would the location of their restaurant matter? My hypothesis is that the biofuel industry is inadvertently introducing glyphosate into fuels that power our cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and ships. While it has long been known that exhaust fumes are toxic to the lungs, there has been a transformation in the fuel industry over the past decade that may have led to a critical increase in the toxicity of the fumes. Specifically, aerosolized glyphosate may be causing damage to the lungs that makes catching what should be a mild cold into a serious health crisis.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the pervasive herbicide, Roundup. It’s used extensively on GMO and non-GMO crops alike, both to control weeds and as a desiccant at the harvest. The waste products from these crops are the raw components that go into the biofuels.
Figure 1: Map of the area around Queens, New York. Map provided by Google Maps.
Seattle is a coastal city, situated between Lake Washington and Elliot Bay, with Lake Union to the north. Water comprises 41% of the area of Seattle. Wuhan, China, is the city where the COVID-19 outbreak first started. The Yangtze River slices through Wuhan. The Yangtze River is highly polluted with industrial wastewater discharge, as well as with runoff of fertilizer and pesticides from adjacent agricultural lands.
The two biggest hot spots in the United States of coronavirus are New York City and New Orleans. New York City is at the mouth of the Hudson River, and New Orleans is at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi. The connection between glyphosate and COVID-19 could be seen in locations where dangerous runoff is more prevalent.
If you look at a map of the hot spots as of March 26, 2020, you see a huge area that tracks the Mississippi down to New Orleans, as well as a series of hot spots in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa that trace the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi.
There is another cluster of COVID-19 outbreaks between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois along the west bank of Lake Michigan. The Hudson River has basically a straight-line course north to south, originating in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York and terminating in New York Harbor. The entire course of the river is buried in hot spots on the map, with a huge hot spot centered over New York City.
Queens, New York is perhaps the most affected area in all of the United States. A case can certainly be made for New York being vulnerable due to the large number of international visitors as well as excess crowding in a metropolitan area.
However, as the map below shows, Queens is also nearly surrounded by water, and it has La Guardia International Airport just to the north and JFK to the south. It is cut through by three major interstate highways, I-278, I-495, and I-678.
The airline industry has been exploring the use of aviation biofuels since at least 2009. United Airlines was the first airline to introduce aviation biofuel in its airplanes, and the first city in the world to offer aviation biofuel was Los Angeles, California.
Within California, Los Angeles is a COVID-19 hot spot. United offers many flights to the United hub just to the south of New York City, Newark Liberty International.
The Netherlands has been harder hit than many other countries of Europe. In 2011, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines became the first airline in the world to operate a commercial flight on aviation biofuels . The fuels were biokerosene derived from used cooking oil.
United Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Air France, now all power airplanes with a blend of conventional fuel and aviation biofuel. All offer services into and out of New York City. Other cities with major airports in the United States, besides New York City and Los Angeles, stand out as hot spots, such as Denver and Salt Lake City in the Mountain West.
Figure 2: A map of the hot spots in the United States where COVID-19 infection rates are highest, as of March 26, 2020. At this point in time, the United States had the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among all countries in the world. See this CNBC article  for details.
Carbon emissions have become a focal issue in the fight to reverse climate change. One promising approach has been to convert waste biomass into oil-based fuels to augment diesel fuel .
Europe has been a leader in deploying biodiesel fuel derived from food waste vegetable oils, such as olive oil .
The United States has seen some successful enterprises launch, based on converting “woody biomass” (waste from the forest industry) and the stalks of corn and wheat post-harvest into biodiesel fuel .
All of these sources can be expected to be contaminated with glyphosate.
Despite being the world’s biggest producer of biodiesel, Europe still depends significantly on imports to supply its demand for biodiesel . Imports increased by two-fold between 2016 and 2017, and again by 3-fold between 2017 and 2018. In 2018, nearly one billion gallons of biodiesel were imported into Europe, and much of this came from Argentina. Argentina, in turn, exports nearly half of its production to places around the world, and the source of its biodiesel is GMO Roundup-Ready soybeans.
Italy has developed a technology that involves gathering used olive oil from restaurants and converting it into biodiesel fuel. While Italy does not allow GMO crops, glyphosate is used routinely to control the weeds growing around the olive trees.
Lombardy, Italy has been a hot spot for COVID-19 even before the epidemic emerged in the U.S. Lombardy has a serious issue with air pollution, particularly with respect to diesel fuel .
The three leading cities in the United States in utilizing biodiesel both in vehicles and as heating oil for homes are:
New York City uses biodiesel to fuel 11,000 vehicles, and it also uses biodiesel, blended with heating oil, to heat buildings. Just in 2018, 35 million gallons of biodiesel were used to heat buildings. The Regional Transit Authority in New Orleans runs city buses on a hybrid mix of electricity and biodiesel. All three of these cities are at the mouth of major waterways, and the most convenient and cheapest way to transport debris from the forest industry and from food crops is via river barges.
As of March 28, Russia had confirmed a total of 1,264 cases of COVID-19 infection. This can be compared to over 2000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States at the same time .
Why the difference? Are Russians healthier than Americans? Consider this: Russia has been a very reluctant participant in the efforts to reduce carbon emissions through the use of biofuels . A strong oil and gas lobby has prevented the development of a biofuels technology sector in Russia.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third leading cause of death worldwide . While smoking is the primary risk factor for COPD, farmers and agricultural workers are known to have an increased risk to lung disease.
A population-based study published in 2017 showed that occupational exposure to herbicides was associated with more than a 2-fold increased risk to COPD .
A 2020 paper, published in the Lancet, “COVID-19: consider cytokine storm syndromes and immunosuppression,” claims that “respiratory failure from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is the leading cause of mortality” in COVID-19 infection .
Other research helps connect the dots: This cleverly designed study by Kumar et al., published in 2014, involved collecting air samples from farms during glyphosate application, and exposing a group of mice to these samples.
The authors noted that glyphosate exposure stimulated airway inflammation and promoted asthma-related cytokines. They summarized as follows:
Collectively, our results showed that mice continuously exposed to glyphosate developed elevated levels of eosinophils, neutrophils, and asthma-related cytokines (IL-5, IL-10, IL-13, IL-33, TSLP) compared to control groups. Exposure to glyphosate results in airway barrier damage.” [15, my emphasis]
In high doses, it is clear that glyphosate has a profound damaging effect on the lungs, even when taken orally. We know that a farmer who tried to commit suicide by drinking a cup of a glyphosate-containing herbicide formulation developed a precipitous drop in blood pressure along with hypoxia, respiratory distress, and acute pulmonary edema within a short time of admission to the hospital .
A meta-analysis of seven studies involving 1,813 COVID-19 patients reported several statistics on associations between ICU admission and various risk factors . Shortness of breath was the strongest symptom linked to the infection. COPD was the most strongly predictive comorbidity for both severe disease and ICU admission.
In this study, people suffering from COPD had an 18-fold increased risk of ending up in the ICU. Cardiovascular disease and hypertension were also strong risk factors for severe disease, and smoking is a causal factor in both of them.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid and deliver an aerosolized product to the user. Recently, an epidemic has emerged in the U.S. of an unusual lung disease, clearly linked to the use of e-cigarettes, otherwise known as “vaping.”
This newly emergent disease has been given the name, E-cigarette, or Vaping, Product Use-Associated Lung Injury (EVALI).
A 2020 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine describes the typical symptoms of this new disease:
“The most common respiratory symptoms were shortness of breath (85%), cough (85%), and chest pain (52%). Reported gastrointestinal symptoms included nausea (66%), vomiting (61%), diarrhea (44%), and abdominal pain (34%). All patients had one or more constitutional symptoms, with the most common being subjective fever (84%). Upper respiratory symptoms such as rhinorrhea, sneezing, or congestion were not commonly reported.” [18, my emphasis].
The most well-known symptoms of COVID-19 infection are dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath, but there can also be digestive issues such as diarrhea and vomiting . Distinct from a normal cold, rhinorrhea (runny nose) is usually absent. The symptoms of COVID-19 are remarkably similar to the symptoms of EVALI.
Propylene glycol and glycerol are important additives in e-cigarettes. These are often sourced from waste from the biodiesel manufacturing process .
Furthermore, vitamin E acetate is sometimes used as a thickening agent in e-cigarette production, and it has been identified as a candidate source of the lung problems associated with vaping, although no biological mechanism has been offered .
What scientists are missing is that vitamin E is commonly sourced from soybean oil, probably from GMO “Roundup-ready” soybeans, since these are the lion’s share of the soybean market. And the biodiesel fuel industry relies on the debris on GMO roundup-ready corn fields or fields of wheat commonly sprayed with glyphosate just before the harvest.
Since vaping involves heat, vapors are released that likely contain vaporized glyphosate, which is then breathed into the lungs and directly impacts the lung tissues.
An elegant study investigating the effects of e-cigarette vapors on the lungs of mice reveals exactly how the lungs are impacted by the exposure . A group of mice received Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) vapor for 4 months, and were subsequently exposed to flu virus. Their reaction was compared with that of control mice that had not been exposed to ENDS. The story is complex, but I will show here through logical deduction how the defects observed in the lungs of these mice can be explained by exposure to glyphosate.
The team of researchers began by explaining what pulmonary surfactant is, because they had observed that surfactant was profoundly disturbed by the e-cigarette vapors. They explain:
Pulmonary surfactant, a complex mixture of lipids and proteins produced exclusively by alveolar type II pneumocytes (ATIIs), forms a critical part of the alveolar-lining fluid… Surfactant reduces alveolar surface tension, thereby preventing lung atelectasis (collapse of the lung), ventilation perfusion mismatch, and hypoxemia…Surfactant protein A (SP-A) and surfactant protein D (SP-D), 2 components of the surfactant complex, play essential roles in innate immune defense by facilitating microbial opsonization and clearance.”
In other words, these two proteins, SP-A and SP-D, are essential for breathing in air and for fighting a virus infection. If they are disrupted, it can be predicted that a viral infection will induce impaired lung function and extreme difficulty in breathing.
One striking characteristic of mice receiving ENDS was significantly reduced concentrations of SP-D in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid .
Another study has shown that mice that are deficient in SP-D show decreased viral clearance of influenza virus A .
People who suffer from asthma have a severe deficiency in SP-D . All of this is highly suggestive of the 2014 study by Kumar et al. described earlier, where mice exposed to glyphosate in samples of air collected from farms released many cytokines and experienced asthma-like symptoms, as would be expected with SP-D being dysfunctional .
The authors of the e-cigarette study summarized their findings as follows: “Together, our data demonstrate that exposure to ENDS vapor reduces innate immune responsiveness, and long-term exposure impairs the ability of mice to control pulmonary infection with influenza.”
In other words, ENDS vapor impairs the innate immune system, causing an overreaction of the adaptive immune system to an infection.
SP-A and SP-D are members of an important class of proteins called collectins.
Collectins are essential for the innate immune system to function properly. They bind to viruses, bacteria, worms, allergenic proteins, and apoptotic cells, and then opsonize them (make them more susceptible to clearance by phagocytes).
Collectins also aggregate viruses and present them to immune cells for clearance. Think of them like vacuum cleaners: collectins clear out debris and infective agents throughout the body .
There are several other members of this class that are important for innate immune function, including mannose binding lectin (MBL), the complement protein C1q, and a macrophage scavenger receptor protein. In in vitro studies, it has been demonstrated that MBL binds to the SARS coronavirus, and inhibits viral infectivity in cultured cells .
Notably, all of these proteins are characterized by a “collagen-like” stalk, which contains a peptide sequence that is well matched to peptide sequences that define collagen.
Collagen is by far the most common protein in the body. Collagen molecules make up 25% of the total protein mass of the body. They essentially form the “glue” that holds together joints, bone, skin, and the organs.
Collagen has extraordinarily high levels of glycine, the smallest amino acid, and glycine is essential for the formation of its crystalline triple-helix structure. Long sequences in collagen and in the collectins consist of a characteristic motif of “GxyGxyGxy…,” where G is glycine and x and y are “wild cards” standing for any amino acid, including glycine.
Many genetic diseases of the bones and joints involve mutations where a single glycine residue in collagen is replaced by something else. This disrupts formation of the triple helix and impairs the protein’s function.
The collectin SP-D has a collagen-like sequence that goes like this:
In several papers published in collaboration with other researchers, I have made a strong argument for the idea that glyphosate can substitute by mistake for glycine during protein synthesis. Glyphosate is an amino acid analogue of glycine—in fact, it is a complete glycine molecule except that there is extra material attached to its nitrogen atom. As such, it becomes plausible that it could mess up proteins by displacing glycine during protein assembly.
This idea of an analogue substituting for an innate amino acid is not new. There are several known examples of amino acid analogues of other amino acids that cause diseases such as ALS, multiple sclerosis, and metabolic disorders.
Importantly, much of the evidence that glyphosate is substituting for glycine comes from Monsanto’s own early studies on glyphosate.
But perhaps the best source where you can learn the details is the most recent paper among my publications concerning chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu), a new disease that is ravaging agricultural workers in Central America and Sri Lanka .
I believe that glyphosate’s disruption of collagen is a major contributor to the epidemic we are witnessing today in joint problems, including back pain, hip replacement therapy, knee surgery, neck pain, and shoulder pain.
All these proteins that are used by the innate immune system to trap and clear viruses can be predicted to be equally vulnerable to glyphosate substitution, because of their highly susceptible long sequence that is greatly enriched in glycine. This would lead to an impaired innate immune response in association with COVID-19.
What am I pointing out? That a growing body of scientific literature, including various studies on both people and mice, can be taken as a whole to suggest that glyphosate may be damaging the lungs in such a way so as to induce an acute response to a new cold virus, leading to extensive damage to the lungs, difficulty breathing, and an inability to efficiently clear the virus from the body in some people. Furthermore, glyphosate can be expected to be found in biodiesel fuel and in e-cigarettes, and exposure to such sources may be what primes some people to become severely ill or even die from COVID-19.
One of the striking features of the lungs observed in the study on mice exposed to vaping fumes was the abnormal accumulation of fat deposits in macrophages in the lungs:
“Comprehensive lipidomic and structural analyses of the lungs revealed aberrant phospholipids in alveolar macrophages and increased surfactant-associated phospholipids in the airway,” the researchers explain .
Liver disease is one of the preconditions associated with increased risk to acute response to COVID-19 infection.
A review study of the statistics of COVID-19 patients in China reported that 14-53% of cases reported in various studies had abnormal levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), which are commonly used indicators of liver disease .
Fatty liver disease is one of the many chronic diseases whose prevalence has been rising alarmingly in the population, in step with the rapid rise in the use of glyphosate on core crops over the past two decades.
A recent study showed that people with fatty liver disease had statistically significantly increased levels of glyphosate in their urine, and those with advanced liver fibrosis had elevated levels compared to those with less advanced disease .
Another study on rats exposed to glyphosate at levels below regulatory limits showed that the rats developed fatty liver disease, despite very low exposure levels .
Additional studies have shown that a characteristic of fatty liver disease is the accumulation of lipids in both the liver-resident macrophages, called Kupffer cells, and invasive macrophages that home in on the liver following the release of liver stress signals .
The mice exposed to e-cigarette vapors responded by accumulating fats in the macrophages in the lungs, just as the rats exposed orally to glyphosate accumulated fats in the liver macrophages. It is logical that inhaled glyphosate would have a more immediate impact on the lungs (rather than the liver), but the effect (fat accumulation) is the same in both organs.
Glyphosate is ubiquitous: it’s not only a major contaminant in food, but it’s also been found in soil, rivers, lakes, streams, and groundwater, and in blood, urine, and breast milk. It’s in rain and in the air and in lung tissue.
The ubiquitous presence of glyphosate is a major threat to human health.
Swanson et al. published a paper in 2014 that showed plots of several chronic diseases alarmingly on the rise, with the use of glyphosate on core crops superimposed on the plots . The correlations were stunning, consistently with p-values less than 0.00001 for the likelihood that the match could have occurred by chance.
An analysis of those who died in Lombardy due to COVID-19 revealed that 99% of them suffered from at least one chronic disease, and nearly half suffered from three or more .
The conditions included heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, COPD, chronic liver disease, chronic renal failure, atrial fibrillation, stroke, dementia and cancer.
Many of these diseases are included in the plots in the paper by Swanson et al.
Is this all just coincidence? I don’t think so. Instead, I strongly suspect that the degree to which a person is susceptible to COVID-19 is proportional to the degree to which they have been exposed to glyphosate. Eating a certified organic diet and staying away from major highways may be among the best tools for protection from an acute reaction to COVID-19.
Researchers from Wuhan, China have done a careful study of four patients who suffered from an acute reaction to COVID-19 and ultimately died . These patients all had severe issues with insufficient oxygen supply due to pneumonia. They also exhibited deficiencies in immune function in terms of decreased counts of various types of immune cells.
Notably, they all suffered from gut dysbiosis, with under-representation of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, and disproportionate overrepresentation of pathogens such as Corynebacterium and Ruthenibacterium. They also had a fungus infection with an overgrowth of Aspergillus. This pattern of gut dysbiosis is in accord with what my colleagues and I have observed in association with glyphosate exposure in animal studies .
The Chinese researchers explain:
“Hypoxemia severity was closely related with host immune cell levels, and the vicious circle between immune disorder and gut microbiota imbalance may be a high risk of fatal pneumonia.”
A study on air and rain samples taken from Mississippi, Iowa, and Indiana found widespread glyphosate contamination, showing that it is accumulating in the atmosphere .
Since our country has been in lockdown, the number of vehicles on the roads has plummeted. This reduces exposure to glyphosate. With fewer cars on the road, you breathe much less vehicle exhaust fumes, reducing the likelihood of an acute reaction to COVID-19 leading to a need for the ICU.
Perhaps it’s not the social distancing, but the reduction of exposure to aerosolized glyphosate, that’s reducing the spread of infection? .
Bhutan is a landlocked country in the East Himalayas, bordered by Tibet and India. The population of Bhutan is a little over 807,000 people.
As of this writing in early April 2020, only four cases of COVID-19 have been reported for Bhutan, two of whom were visiting foreigners.
Bhutan has embraced the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first 100% organic nation . Is it possible that there is so little COVID-19 because Bhutan’s people aren’t being over-exposed to glyphosate?
The United States has stood out as the country hit the hardest by COVID-19. We also consume more glyphosate per capita than any other country in the world. It will be a tragic irony if it turns out that our attempts to reduce carbon emissions through the use of extracts from glyphosate-exposed food crops and trees as a source of fuel in cars, trucks, buses, ships, airplanes—and as heating oil for buildings—turn out to be one of the primary causes of the COVID-19 epidemic.
I cannot claim to have proven that glyphosate is causing the weakened immune system and lung damage that sets up a susceptibility to an acute response to COVID-19. Science is a process of inquiry and we must keep inquiring. However, the circumstantial evidence is compelling and more research is needed. I hope I will inspire scientific researchers who have the necessary skills to further explore this hypothesis.
About Stephanie Seneff: Dr. Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. She has a B.S. degree from MIT in biology and M.S., E.E., and Ph.D. degrees from MIT in electrical engineering and computer science. Dr. Seneff has published over 200 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals and conference proceedings. Her recent interests have focused on the role of toxic chemicals and micronutrient deficiencies in health and disease, with a special emphasis on the pervasive herbicide, Roundup, and the mineral, sulfur. Her investigations have led to a strong hypothesis that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the key factor in the autism epidemic and in many other neurological, metabolic, oncological and autoimmune diseases. She has authored over thirty peer-reviewed journal papers over the past few years on these topics, and has delivered numerous presentations around the world.
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Published: April 7, 2020
Last update: April 24, 2020