Over the last several months, our lives have changed dramatically with the advent of COVID-19 disease. COVID-19 is caused by a virus known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). More than 11 million cases have been diagnosed globally, with greater than 6 million in the Americas.
This global pandemic has affected our professional and personal lives in numerous ways, although some have been more significantly impacted than others. Recently, we have begun to understand why certain groups of people seem to have a higher risk of being infected and more severe symptoms than others.
What role do genes play?
Like the flu, COVID-19 is passed from person to person by close contact, including droplets from sneezes and coughs. While it is not inherited from parent to child as a genetic trait, early information is beginning to shed some light on possible relationships between genetic factors and COVID-19 risks, and why some individuals seem to be at higher risk.
A collaboration of groups out of the UK recently published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine comparing the genetic code of ~2000 individuals with severe illness due to COVID-19 in Italy and Spain, countries significantly affected early during the global spread of the disease, to healthy persons similar in age and other factors to the affected patients. The researchers’ results indicated a possible association between two genetic factors and COVID-19 risk.
The first is a group of six genes on chromosome 3 at 3p21.31, which are genes that play a role in the immune system. These include genes that work in the body to control the mechanism by which SARS-CovV-2 can infect the body (ACE2) and respiratory immune response.
The second includes genetic variations on chromosome 9 at 9q34.2, associated with blood type and inflammation response. This preliminary study showed that those with blood type A may be more likely to experience more severe illness when infected with COVID-19 than other blood types, and those with type O blood less likely to experience severe illness than other blood types.
To better understand why some individuals, seem more likely to catch the virus and/or have more severe symptoms than others, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is working with individuals participating in the All of Us Program to tease out additional biological and genetic factors that could play a role. Currently, there are ~350,000 patients enrolled in the program. These patients represent a diverse adult population with regard to ethnicity, age, socioeconomic backgrounds, and location across the US.
Researchers will be testing for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies within 10,000+ enrolled individuals, which can help determine the number and timeline of infection in various areas at different times since the study began.
They will also be tracking cases for individuals who have shared their electronic medical records and present for diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19. This will help the NIH better understand the symptoms of the disease in different populations and what treatments may be more or less effective.
Finally, to better understand healthcare needs and how the disease affects populations differently, the All of Us Program will utilize a monthly online survey to follow the physical and mental health impacts of COVID-19.
Where do we go from here?
Though research into better understanding this virus is occurring globally around the clock, we still have a lot to learn about how our genes can impact our risk for COVID-19. While it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about associations between genetic factors of blood type and immune response, and COVID-19 risk, these early studies do help to drive our understanding of who may be at greater risk for COVID-19 infection. This information could also help inform medical management and prevention guidelines in the future.
For now, this data inspires us that progress is being made to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which sets us up for success to be able to fight it, and eventually, beat it.
What should I do?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and NIH each offer guidelines for testing if you are symptomatic or believe you have been exposed to COVID-19. Baylor Genetics, with over 40 years of experience in genetic testing, has stepped into offering testing for COVID-19, allowing for increased access to this information for individuals and families at risk.
Additional information for both the general public and health care providers can help to answer many of the most common questions about testing, results, and how to use this information for your and your family’s health.
To learn more about our COVID-19 genetic test, visit our COVID-19 product page.