Biological sex is increasingly recognized as a critical determinant of health and disease, particularly relevant to the topical COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Epidemiological data and observational reports from both the original SARS epidemic and the most recent COVID-19 pandemic have a common feature: males are more likely to exhibit enhanced disease severity and mortality than females. Sex differences in cardiovascular disease and COVID-19 share mechanistic foundations, namely, the involvement of both the innate immune system and the canonical renin-angiotensin system (RAS). Immunological differences suggest that females mount a rapid and aggressive innate immune response, and the attenuated antiviral response in males may confer enhanced susceptibility to severe disease. Furthermore, the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) is involved in disease pathogenesis in cardiovascular disease and COVID-19, either to serve as a protective mechanism by deactivating the RAS or as the receptor for viral entry, respectively. Loss of membrane ACE2 and a corresponding increase in plasma ACE2 are associated with worsened cardiovascular disease outcomes, a mechanism attributed to a disintegrin and metalloproteinase (ADAM17). SARS-CoV-2 infection also leads to ADAM17 activation, a positive feedback cycle that exacerbates ACE2 loss. Therefore, the relationship between cardiovascular disease and COVID-19 is critically dependent on the loss of membrane ACE2 by ADAM17-mediated proteolytic cleavage. This article explores potential mechanisms involved in COVID-19 that may contribute to sex-specific susceptibility focusing on the innate immune system and the RAS, namely, genetics and sex hormones. Finally, we highlight here the added challenges of gender in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keywords: ACE2; SARS-CoV-2; cardiovascular disease; gender; sex; sex differences.