Genetic variants linked to COVID-19 severity

The question on everyone’s mind these days seems to be… Will I get the COVID? If I do, will it be bad?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus hits people so differently! While the majority of people are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, some people have a severe case that can result in death. Additionally, some have lingering symptoms that continue longer than normal for a seasonal respiratory virus.

Before I dig into the latest genetics research study, let me set the stage with what we already know about the risk factors for more severe cases of COVID-19…

What do we know about risk factors for mortality due to COVID-19?

COVID-19 now has a ton of published research studies, with the biggest risk factors being age for elderly individuals and underlying conditions for younger individuals (e.g. diabetes with complications, cancer, COPD, and chronic heart failure).

How important is age as a risk factor? In the UK, the average age of mortality for COVID-19 is 79 for men and 84 for women, with more than three-quarters of deaths occurring in people over age 75. Interestingly, the mortality rate in urban areas was four times higher than in remote rural areas.[ref]

In a genetics study on younger adults in their 20s and 30s who had severe cases (one resulting in death), the results showed a rare mutation in an immune system-related gene known as TLR7.[ref]

It is entirely likely that other rare mutations affecting immune response also impact the mortality rate of young people for SARS-CoV-2, as well as other viral and bacterial pathogens. There is a large genetic component to the differences in susceptibility to many infectious diseases, with some people naturally immune to the norovirus, rotavirus, and even HIV. (Read about your genes and viral susceptibility).

Latest Genetics Study on COVID-19:

A genome-wide association study that came out a few months ago as a preprint[ref] has now been peer-reviewed and published in the journal Nature Genetics.

The study included data from 2244 patients in the UK who were admitted to the critical care unit in a UK hospital. As a control group, ancestry-matched genetic data from the UK Biobank database was used.

The researchers then validated the data against other research studies, and they also did a Mendelian randomization study on the results, looking at causality.[ref]

The study is interesting in that it looks at variants in “younger people” that are linked to the severity of symptoms for SARS-CoV-2.  The participants’ average age was 57 years old.

Two things to keep in mind:

  1. All of the variants below increase or decrease the relative risk by ~1.2 to 1.4-fold. In contrast, co-morbidities have a greater impact on risk than these genetic variants.[ref]
  2. Additionally, the research covers a couple of other genetic variants that are not covered in 23andMe or AncestryDNA.

In general, the genetic variants discovered in the study are either part of the initial immune response that the body produces for a virus or related to the later response to respiratory infections.


Genetic variants linked to severe COVID-19:

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About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.