Researchers discover gene which doubles the risk of respiratory failure from Covid

4 November 2021, 16:10

The gene is found is around 60 per cent of people with South Asian ancestry
The gene is found is around 60 per cent of people with South Asian ancestry. Picture: Alamy

By Megan Hinton

Researchers have discovered the gene which puts people at double the risk of respiratory failure from coronavirus.

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The gene is found in around 60 per cent of people with South Asian ancestry, according to a new study.

Scientists say this partly explains the excess deaths seen in some UK communities, and the impact of Covid-19 in the Indian subcontinent.

The study also found that around 15 percent of the European population carried the gene whilst just 2 per cent of people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry carried the higher risk genotype, meaning this genetic factor does not completely explain the higher death rates reported for black and minority ethnic communities.

Whilst research indicates the impact of the gene, scientists stress that they are not suggesting that socio-economic factors are not important for Covid risk and outcome.

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Study co-lead James Davies worked as an NHS consultant in intensive care medicine during the pandemic and is an associate professor of genomics at Oxford University's Radcliffe Department of Medicine.

He said: "If you have the high-risk genotype and you get very unwell with Covid, there's a 50 per cent chance that that wouldn't have happened to you had you had the lower risk genotype."

The study, published in Nature Genetics, also found that the gene does not alter immune cell function. Because the effect is in the biology of the lungs, people with the higher risk version of the genes should respond fully to vaccination, the scientists say.

Previous research had identified a stretch of DNA on chromosome three which doubled the risk of adults under the age of 65 from Covid.

But it was not known how this genetic signal worked to increase the risk, nor the exact genetic change that was responsible.

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Study co-lead Jim Hughes, professor of gene regulation at the University of Oxford, said: "The reason this has proved so difficult to work out, is that the previously identified genetic signal affects the 'dark matter' of the genome.

"We found that the increased risk is not because of a difference in gene coding for a protein, but because of a difference in the DNA that makes a switch to turn a gene on.

"It's much harder to detect the gene which is affected by this kind of indirect switch effect."

The gene was identified using a combination of artificial intelligence and cutting-edge molecular technology which visualises the structure of DNA inside cells in unprecedented detail.

The researchers found that the higher risk version of the gene probably prevents the cells lining airways and the lungs from responding to the virus properly.

They hope drugs and other therapies could target the pathway preventing the lung lining from transforming to less specialised cells, raising the possibility of new treatments customised for those most likely to develop severe symptoms.