Why are young, healthy people dying from COVID-19? Genes may reveal the answer.

genetic swab test sitting on top of chart of genetic data
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Young, healthy people are dying of COVID-19 infections, even if most serious cases occur in the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. Now, scientists are looking to see if genes may explain why some people fall seriously ill while others show only mild symptoms, Science magazine reported.

Several ongoing projects aim to analyze and compare the DNA of those with severe COVID-19 infection to those with mild or asymptomatic cases. Differences may lie in genes that instruct human cells to build a receptor called ACE2, which the novel coronavirus relies on to enter cells, Science reported. Alternatively, it may be that genes that support the body's immune response to the virus differ between individuals, or that those with particular blood types carry protective genetic traits that shield them from illness, as suggested by a preliminary study from China

For now, we don't know which genes might render people susceptible to serious COVID-19 infection, but given the pace of the pandemic, researchers could identify likely candidates within a few months, Andrea Ganna, a geneticist at the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), told Science. 

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Ganna and FIMM Director Mark Daly are heading an international effort to collect genetic data from COVID-19 patients, known as the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative. Several biobanks, including FinnGen in Finland and the 50,000-participant biobank at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, have "expressed interest" in contributing data to the study, according to Science. Some groups working with the initiative plan to collect DNA samples from willing patients who are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 infections. Alessandra Renieri, a geneticist at the University of Siena in Italy, expects 11 Italian hospitals to participate in such a study with her own research group.

"It is my opinion that [host] genetic differences are a key factor … for susceptibility to severe acute pneumonia," Renieri told Science. Jean-Laurent Casanova, a pediatrics researcher at the Rockefeller University, is organizing a similar effort within a global network of pediatricians. Their aim is to study "previously healthy" patients under age 50 who have developed severe COVID-19 infections, as their vulnerability to the virus likely lies in their genes, Casanova told Science. 

As part of their own initiatives, the UK Biobank will also begin curating data from COVID-19 patients, and the Iceland-based company deCODE Genetics will partner with the country's government to do the same. In the U.S., the Personal Genome Project at Harvard University is recruiting volunteers to share their genetic data, tissue samples, health data and COVID-19 status, Science reported.

In the coming weeks and months, these and other projects may reveal why COVID-19 only triggers a transient cough in some people, while endangering the lives of many others.

Originally published on Live Science. 

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Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.