Background: The recent emergence of COVID-19 poses a global health emergency . One of the most frequently reported data is sex-related severity and mortality: according to the last available analysis on 239,709 patients in Italy, lethality is 17.7% in men and 10.8% in women, with 59% of total deaths being men . Interestingly, the infection rate is lower in males than in females, with 45.8% and 54.2% of positive cases, respectively, suggesting that gender-related factor may worsen disease evolution . A tentative hypothesis to explain these findings is the role of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and serine protease TMPRSS2 involved in viral infection .
Purpose: In this review, we summarize the available evidence pointing to gender-related differences in ACE2 and TMPRSS2 expression, from both genetic and endocrine points of view .
Results: Altogether, available evidence points toward two not-mutually exclusive mechanisms in gender susceptibility to COVID-19 by sex hormonal regulation of ACE2 and TMPRSS2 . On one hand, ACE2 expression could be increased in women, either by estrogens or constitutively by X chromosome inactivation escape or by reduced methylation, providing a larger reservoir of ACE2 to maintain the fundamental equilibrium of RAS regulatory axis . On the other, low levels of androgens in women may keep at low levels TMPRSS2 expression, representing a further protective factor for the development of COVID-19 infection, despite the increased expression of ACE2, which represents the Trojan horse for SARS-CoV-2 entry .
Conclusions: Both mechanisms consistently point to the role of sex hormones and sex chromosomes in the differential severity and lethality of COVID-19 in men and women.