How sick will the coronavirus make you? The answer may be in your genes
Posted on March 28th, 2020

By Jocelyn Kaiser Courtesy Science

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

COVID-19, caused by the new pandemic coronavirus, is strangely—and tragically—selective. Only some infected people get sick, and although most of the critically ill are elderly or have complicating problems such as heart disease, some killed by the disease are previously healthy and even relatively young. Researchers are now gearing up to scour the patients’ genomes for DNA variations that explain this mystery. The findings could be used to identify those most at risk of serious illness and those who might be protected, and they might also guide the search for new treatments.

The projects range from ongoing studies with DNA for many thousands of participants, some now getting infected with the coronavirus, to new efforts that are collecting DNA from COVID-19 patients in hard-hit places such as Italy. The goal is to compare the DNA of people who have serious cases of COVID-19 (which stands for coronavirus disease 2019)—but no underlying disease like diabetes, heart or lung disease—with those with mild or no disease. We see huge differences in clinical outcomes and across countries. How much of that is explained by genetic susceptibility is a very open question,” says geneticist Andrea Ganna of the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM).

It’s hard to predict what will pop out from these gene hunts, some researchers say. But there are obvious suspects, such as the gene coding for the cell surface protein angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which the coronavirus uses to enter airway cells. Variations in the ACE2 gene that alter the receptor could make it easier or harder for the virus to get into cells, says immunologist Philip Murphy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose lab identified a relatively common mutation in another human cell surface protein, CCR5, that makes some people highly resistant to HIV.

Ganna heads up a major effort to pool COVID-19 patients’ genetic data from around the world. The idea came quite spontaneously” about 2 weeks ago when everyone was sitting at their computers watching this crisis,” says Ganna, who is also affiliated with the Broad Institute, a U.S. genomic powerhouse.

He and FIMM Director Mark Daly quickly created a website for their project, the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, and reached out to colleagues who run large biobank studies that follow thousands of volunteers for years to look for links between their DNA and health. At least a dozen biobanks, mostly in Europe and the United States, have expressed interest in contributing COVID-19 data from participants who agreed to this. Among them are FinnGen, which has DNA samples and health data for 5% of the 5 million–person Finnish population, and the 50,000-participant biobank at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The UK Biobank, one of world’s largest with DNA data for 500,000 participants, also plans to add COVID-19 health data from participants to its data set, the project tweeted this month. And the Icelandic company deCODE Genetics, which is helping test much of the nation’s population to see who is infected with the new coronavirus, has received government permission to add these data and any subsequent COVID-19 symptoms to its database, which contains genome and health data on half of Iceland’s 364,000 inhabitants, says its CEO Kári Stefánsson. We will do our best to contribute to figuring this out,” Stefánsson says.

Another effort to identify protective or susceptibility DNA variants is the Personal Genome Project led by Harvard University’s George Church, which recruits people willing to share their full genome, tissue samples, and health data for research. Earlier this month, it sent questionnaires to its thousands of participants, asking about their COVID-19 status. More than 600 in the United States responded within 48 hours. It seems that most people want to do their part,” says Church, whose group isn’t yet part of Ganna’s collaboration.

Other researchers working with Ganna’s initiative are recruiting COVID-19 patients directly within hospitals for such genomics studies. Italian geneticist Alessandra Renieri of the University of Siena expects at least 11 hospitals in the nation to give ethics approval for her team to collect DNA samples from willing patients. It is my opinion that [host] genetic differences are a key factor … for susceptibility to severe acute pneumonia,” Renieri says.

Pediatrics researcher Jean-Laurent Casanova at the Rockefeller University, who specializes in identifying rare genes that can make healthy young people susceptible to certain serious diseases, is drawing on a network of pediatricians around the world to look for the relatively few young people who develop COVID-19 serious enough to get admitted to intensive care. We study exclusively patients who were previously healthy” and under 50, as their serious COVID-19 illness is more likely to have a genetic basis, he explains.

In addition to genetic variants of the ACE2 receptor, scientists want to see whether differences in the human leukocyte antigen genes, which influence the immune system’s response to viruses and bacteria, affect disease severity. And some investigators want to follow up a finding, which a Chinese team reported in a preprint: that people with type O blood may be protected from the virus. We’re trying to figure out if those findings are robust,” says Stanford University human geneticist Manuel Rivas, who is contributing to Ganna’s initiative.

The catastrophic spread of the coronavirus should soon increase the number of COVID-19 patients available to these gene hunts. And that could speed findings. Ganna expects the first susceptibility genes could be identified within a couple of months.

With reporting by Elizabeth Pennisi.

One Response to “How sick will the coronavirus make you? The answer may be in your genes”

  1. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    All the problems two legged creatures facing today is due to population explosion. These new breeds need a
    lot of resources and they generate a lot of pollution too. What the world today need is a Buddhist approach which
    teaches the two legged creatures to live a life without harming the nature, other creatures and fellow human
    beings. Religions, apart from Buddhism, don’t teach the two legged creatures to refrain from sins. Only thing they
    promote is those fictitious gods themselves. So people think they are doing the right thing while resorting to all
    sort of crimes, misdeeds. A first step to sustainable future for the two legged creatures, the planet and all the
    living things is to stop having too many children. Prime example is fastest breeding religion aka religion of
    violence having large families to take over countries which they used to turn old Buddhist Iran, Afganisthan,
    Pakisthan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia (former Silk Route) within a few hundred years of their arrival in those countries to muslim countries. (Google to see those countries’ old Buddhist heritage). Covid19 won’t be the last. There will be another deadlier one surely waiting in the wings since human beings don’t care about anything
    but themselves and money.

    Buddhism’s Five Precepts:
    1 Refrain from killing
    2 Refrain from stealing
    3 Refrain from sexual misconduct
    4 Refrain from lying
    5 Refrain from drugs and alcohol abuse.

    All the crimes (sins) any two legged creature can do anywhere under the sun:
    1 killing
    2 stealing
    3 sexual misconduct
    4 lying
    5 drugs, alcohol abuse.
    Buddhism’s Five Precepts are used as the penal code in every country under the sun to punish two legged
    creatures who break those Five Precepts! Any honest man is going to agree! Five Precepts is a guide for all the
    two legged creatures how to live their lives without harming the environment they live in and be mindful how
    to live in a society without being a nuisance and make your next life even better one. Most people frown on The
    Buddha’s teachings since they have to make a bit of sacrifice to be a responsible person in the society.

    Most of the two leggeds are selfish, greedy, ungrateful, crafty people we most agree. Add to this there are a lot
    of greedy, unsympathetic political leaders who don’t give a toss about other countries, environment, people etc.
    etc. Then is there any wonder, two leggeds are being punished for their crimes. We all know (honest people
    only), two legged creatures shouldn’t be eating meat since our distant relative chimp isn’t a meat eater. What’s more if you look at your teeth and it tells you what sort of diet we should be eating (it’s different from cat/dog/lion/tiger etc. etc., is it not?). But people are hell bent on killing animals for food.

    The earth’s size is a grain of sand in the vast vast vast vast universe (The Buddha preached this, also NASA has
    corroborated this with their missions). Within the last few decades world’s population has quadrupled from
    sparsely place to a bursting at the seams. These new mouths need a lot of resources and they generate a lot of
    pollution too. What’s more farmers take new techniques (tricks) to maximise their profits to feed this burgeoning
    population. One such practice is to add antibiotics to the animal feed so the livestock go without any diseases to
    the two legged creatures stomach saving a lot of money for the farmers. Downside of this is, after eating these
    antibiotic-laced meat two legged creatures become antibiotic resistant. Then scientists have to find a fix to
    fix the two legged creatures! What’s more livestock generate a lot of greenhouse gases and pollute the planet
    and jungles have to be cleared to rear them. Livestocks too have diseases and they pass these to two legged
    creatures (their revenge). It’s a lose, lose situation for the planet. Do the two legged give toss? No chance in hell.

    So the two legged reaps what they sow. If the two legged creatures come out of this hole somehow, there will be
    another one even more dangerous waiting in the wings. People used to worship trees, mountains, rivers, gods in
    the olden days in the absence of science. Charles Darwin showed the world how the two legged creatures came
    to be being in his Theory of Evolution. Then his book, The Tree of Life, explained how all these other millions of
    creatures came to be being. The Buddha explained, to be a two legged creature one has to spend millions of
    years in the animal kingdom (similar to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution). Buddhism disappeared from India since
    it didn’t fit the society with caste system, animal sacrifice etc and they quickly reverted back to religions of conveniences which don’t regard sins as sins. Then invading muslims destroyed whatever left of it. That’s not all former Buddhist countries iran, afganisthan, pakisthan, bangladesh, malaysia and indonesia succumbed to
    musslims within a few hundred years of their arrivals. Soon they outnumbered the natives and turned
    all of those countries to muslim countries.

    What The Buddha preached to be true has been proved again and again by scientists and NASA. While the
    mankind taking one step forward by sciences, they take two steps backward due to their selfishness, greed, dishonesty etc. etc. It’s same at individuals as well as countries. Is there any wonder then two legged creatures facing a really bleak future? Are they going to pause for a minute and think of changing their ways? No chance in hell. Covid19 giving them a stark warning! Be prepared for even more dangerous things!

    The Buddha preached in his teachings: Health is the greatest wealth. How appropriate at a time when so called
    ‘almighty two legged creatures’ are hiding from an invisible killer!

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