Severe illness from COVID-19 develops in less than 10% of infected individuals. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have been working to understand what causes differences in the severity of infection.
Extensive genetic research has produced greater understanding of what role genes play in disease severity, why some people may never get COVID-19, and even how people’s emotional response to the pandemic in general may be tied to genetic factors.
Recent findings using whole genome sequencing (WGS) reveal host factors that may lead to severe illness from COVID-19. Researchers from the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC) study, a global collaboration to study genetics in critical illness led by the University of Edinburgh in partnership with Genomics England, used WGS in 7,491 critically ill COVID-19 patients from 224 intensive care units (ICUs) in England and compared them with 48,400 controls. This allowed the team to create a map and identify genetic variation linked to COVID-19 severity. Sixteen new genetic variations were identified in ICU patients when compared to the DNA of other groups. Variation in genes that control blood clotting may explain the observations related to clotting abnormalities seen in severe cases of COVID-19. This study provides key insights into both disease severity and disease process – a big step toward designing effective treatment.
While most research in this area focused on genetic factors impacting the disease itself, the COVID-19 pandemic also provided a unique opportunity to conduct studies to explore the impact of genetics on wellbeing. In a recent study by the University of Groningen, Netherlands, researchers explored the role of genetics in individuals’ personal experiences during the pandemic. They found that certain individuals had a genetic tendency to feel better than others and that genetic tendency had a strong influence on how people perceived quality of life. The findings also demonstrated that the contribution of genetics to complex traits like wellbeing can change over time.
COVID-19 gave rise to increased genomic surveillance globally. Per data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO), only 54% of countries had this capacity in March 2021. By January 2022, owing to major investments made during the pandemic, this increased to 68%, with more than 43% publishing their sequence data. Understanding the importance of genomic surveillance, the WHO has recently released its “Global genomic surveillance strategy for pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential” (view here).
Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have helped distinguish loci associated with specific symptoms such as loss of taste and smell in COVID-19 patients, as well as specific markers associated with severity such as pneumonia after infection. Future GWAS studies could possibly reveal more about long COVID-19 symptoms.
Insurers should continue to study the impact of COVID-19 to understand the drivers of disease severity. As in many other fields of medicine and science, genetics is now providing new insights into the treatment and management of COVID-19. Experts hope that leveraging this greater understanding will help reduce the number of lives lost to the disease, as well as the burden of COVID-19 on society.