Researchers at the Medical Research Council Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, have identified the gene responsible for doubling the risk of respiratory failures from COVID-19.
This gene — called LZTFL1 — can be found in 60 percent of people with South Asian ancestry and the researchers say that it may be able to explain the excess deaths seen in some of the UK communities and the impact of pandemic during the second wave in India.
Even so, the gene is possibly just one factor that could have led to these outcomes, since socio-economic factors also partly explain why some communities were more severely impacted by the disease.
For instance, while 60 percent of people with South Asian ancestry carry this gene, 15 percent of those with European ancestry carry it and two percent of people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry also carry it. Therefore, this gene does not explain the higher death rates that were reported for black people and some minority ethnic communities.
The study was published in the journal Nature Genetics this week.
In this study, researchers used cutting edge technology to find out which gene increased the risk of under 65 year olds dying from COVID-19 and how this gene led to this outcome. The team first trained an artificial intelligence algorithm, which analysed huge quantities of genetic data from hundreds of types of cells from all parts of the body. This showed that this genetic signal was likely to affect cells present in the lung.
How does the gene make people carrying it more vulnerable to the disease?
They found that the higher risk version of the gene possibly prevents the cells lining the airways and the lungs from responding to the virus properly. This means that the presence of this gene changes how an individual’s lungs respond to the virus, thereby increasing risk of developing respiratory failure from COVID-19.
But while the gene impacts the response of the lungs, it does not impact the immune system, therefore, researchers believe that people carrying this version of the gene should respond normally to the vaccines.
“Although we cannot change our genetics, our results show that the people with the higher risk gene are likely to particularly benefit from vaccination. Since the genetic signal affects the lung rather than the immune system it means that the increased risk should be cancelled out by the vaccine,” a statement quoted study co-lead Professor Prof James Davies as saying.
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