COVID-19: Gene variant that may protect against virus

Scientists believe they have identified a specific genetic variant that may protect against severe COVID-19 infection, something they say may be key to developing new drugs to tackle the virus.

While we know that factors such as age and chronic conditions can increase the risk of severe cases of COVID-19, genes are one of the least understood aspects of risk.

Previous studies have found that people with a particular segment of their DNA have a 20 percent lower risk of developing a critical case of COVID-19, according to a press release for this new study. Determine which side of the DNA had a protective effect. Specifically, it extends to three genes: OAS1, OAS2, and OAS3.

This particular piece of DNA, which encodes genes in the immune system, is inherited from Neanderthals in about half of people outside Africa.

So how is a segment of DNA narrowed down to a specific genetic variant?

Previous studies have largely looked at individuals of European ancestry. In this new study, published Thursday in the journal Nature Genetics, researchers focused on individuals of African descent.

Since the inheritance of this DNA from Neanderthals occurred after the ancient migration from Africa, those with African ancestry lacking Neanderthal inheritance lack the majority of this specific DNA segment.

However, a small portion of this DNA segment is found in both people of European and African descent, which means that if individuals of African descent are found and have no connection to Neanderthals, they have a 20 percent lower risk For severe COVID-19 infection, the range of any part of the DNA that may provide this effect can be narrowed.

The study revealed that this is exactly what the researchers found.

“The fact that individuals of African descent have the same protection allowed us to identify the unique variant in their DNA that actually protects against COVID-19 infection,” Jennifer Hoffman, first study author and researcher with the VA Boston Healthcare System, said in the statement.

Researchers studied 2,787 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 of African descent, as well as more than 130,000 people across six studies as a control group.

They found that 80 percent of 2,787 patients had the protective genetic variant, which was compared with a previous study of nearly 50,000 individuals of European ancestry to identify the genetic variant.

The researchers say the protective genetic variant, called rs10774671-6, has its main function to determine the length of the protein encoded by the OAS1 gene. When this protein is longer, it is better at breaking down SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

OAS1 plays an important role in inhibiting viral replication and antiviral response. Previous research suggested that specific genetic variations in the OAS1 gene could be linked to severe COVID-19, showing how important this is in determining risk.

Essentially, altering OAS1 splicing may be able to influence the outcome of COVID-19, making this something that could be targeted with future drugs.

“We are beginning to understand genetic risk factors in detail that is key to developing new drugs against COVID-19,” Brent Richards, research co-author and senior researcher at the Lady Davis Institute at Jewish General Hospital and a professor at McGill University, said in the statement.

The researchers noted that this finding highlights the importance of studying a diverse group of individuals in order to get a clearer picture, as studying only people of European descent would make it difficult to narrow down this genetic variant.

“This study shows how important it is to include individuals of different origins,” Hugo Seiberg, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet and corresponding author of the study, said in the statement. “If we only study one group, we will not succeed in identifying the genetic variant in this case.”

This isn’t the only research focusing on how genes play a role in COVID-19 outcomes.

Polish scientists announced, Thursday, that they have discovered the gene that doubles the risk of severe disease with COVID-19. The gene is found in a quarter of the population of India and about 14 percent of the population of Poland.

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