New research suggests link between genes and COVID-19 infection

An upcoming study from biotech giant 23andMe explores a link between a person’s genes and their likelihood of being infected by COVID-19, including the extent of the symptoms after infection. This research is further confirmation of the results of 23andMe’s first study that started in April.

23andMe started its initial study with over 750,000 participants in April. The company’s goal was to leverage the millions of DNA profiles they have collected over the years with their at-home testing kits to find a connection between the coronavirus and genes. The preliminary results from that study suggested that participants with type O blood were more protected against COVID-19 compared to other blood type participants.

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The study also indicated a link between COVID-19 and the ABO gene. That is the gene responsible for encoding proteins related to the first discovered blood group system, ABO.

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“There have also been some reports of links between Covid-19, blood clotting, and cardiovascular disease. These reports provided some hints about which genes might be relevant,” lead researcher Adam Auton from that first 23andMe study said.

The new, upcoming study (which is yet to be peer-reviewed) confirms the earlier results produced by the genetic testing giant’s earlier study, STAT reports. The new study is drawn from a larger, more diverse dataset of participants, according to the company. Tom Hemming Karlsen, a physician at Oslo University Hospital, is one of many researchers that praises the work done by 23andMe.

Tom Hemming Karlsen
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“They clarify further what our data could only vaguely hint at,” Karlsen says. He previously published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that explores genetic links to COVID-19 severity in June. Karlsen’s work is not affiliated with 23andMe. Though the research hints at promising revelations, other experts say that current treatment practices will be unaffected by the study results.

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Jennifer Lighter, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at NYU Langone (not involved in 23andMe’s research) says, “It doesn’t have practical implications. There’s no treatment decisions that will be made from it — it’s just an interesting finding.”

Karlsen has also spearheaded a study with his colleagues, similar to 23andMe’s research. However, that study included participants severely affected by COVID-19, unlike 23andMe’s far more diverse dataset. 23andMe included people with mild and severe cases, allowing their study conclusions to be stronger, according to Karlsen.

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Though 23andMe’s participant set is as diverse as it can get, it still doesn’t represent the full population of the United States. For example, Latino and Black people represent 16% and 13% of the total population of the United States respectively. 23andMe’s study demographic included only about 11% Latino and less than 3% Black. However, it is important to note that it is still miles better than what more constricted studies can achieve.

Both 23andMe and Karlsen’s study suggested that genes that help determine a person’s blood type could be linked to whether a person will test positive for COVID-19. They also suggested that a section of chromosome 3 called “chr3p21.31” could determine the severity of COVID-19 infection for an individual.

However, these such dataset based studies only provide effective results on a large scale. This is best in the case of 23andMe’s study where over a million people agreed to participate in the company’s COVID-19 study. The company also has sourced more than 12 million people’s genomes worldwide, according to 23andMe’s website.

There are various other more important factors that determine severity of COVID-19 infection, such as other underlying conditions, ethnicity, and even gender, and much more we have yet to explore. However, these studies are still very important, even if they don’t change current treatment methods, to help researchers identify the complete working of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in order to develop effective vaccines and medication.

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