New genetic study provides more insight into severe COVID-19

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Recently released research involving 57,000 people has revealed new details about some of the biological mechanisms behind severe novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The study, published in the journal, Nature, was conducted by researchers from the GenOMICC consortium, a global collaboration to study genetics in critical illness, led by scientists at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with Genomics England. The research identified 16 new genetic variants associated with severe COVID-19, including some related to blood clotting, immune response, and intensity of inflammation. These discoveries were made by sequencing the genomes of 7,491 patients from 224 intensive care units in the United Kingdom.

Comparing their DNA with 48,400 other people who had not contracted COVID-19, participants in Genomics England’s 100,000 Genomes Project, as well as 1,630 people who had experienced mild COVID-19, researchers found key differences in 16 genes in the intensive care unit (ICU) patients when compared with the DNA of the other groups. They also confirmed the involvement of seven other genetic variations already associated with severe Covid-19 discovered in earlier studies.

The findings included how a single gene variant that disrupts a key messenger molecule in immune system signaling – called interferon alpha-10 – was enough to increase a patient’s risk of severe disease. This highlights the gene’s key role in the immune system and suggests that treating patients with interferon – proteins released by immune cells to defend against viruses – may help manage disease in the early stages.

The study also found that variations in genes that control the levels of a central component of blood clotting – known as Factor 8 – were associated with critical illness in COVID-19.

Researchers believe this may explain some of the clotting abnormalities that are seen in severe cases of COVID-19. Factor 8 is the gene underlying the most common type of haemophilia.

 “Our latest findings point to specific molecular targets in critical COVID-19,” said Kenneth Baillie, PhD, the project’s chief investigator. “These results explain why some people develop life-threatening COVID-19, while others get no symptoms at all. But more importantly, this gives us a deep understanding of the process of disease and is a big step forward in finding more effective treatments."