Coronagenes: A study of the genes behind severe COVID-19

Image credit: Coronagenes, University of Edinburgh

COVID-19 affects individuals in different ways. Some people are asymptomatic whereas others require intensive care; most cases are short lived, but others experience more long term symptoms. The body’s reaction to COVID-19, like most illnesses, is dictated by both environmental and genetic factors. As COVID-19 emerged, environmental risk factors for severe symptoms, such as old age, smoking and obesity, quickly became apparent but the genetic influences remain elusive. Professors Albert Tenesa and Jim Wilson at the University of Edinburgh are leading the Coronagenes project to identify these genetic influences.

Tenesa’s goal is “to understand why there is such a wide range of COVID-19 symptoms and why people respond so differently” and he believes that “genetics are likely to play an important role in this”. The Coronagenes study will gather environmental data from volunteers in the form of a questionnaire, and more significantly, genetic data from saliva samples. Using this data, Coronagenes will identify the genes that play a role in the variation of symptoms between patients by comparing the volunteers’ varied symptoms, or even lack of symptoms, with their DNA. If a large proportion of people with a particular symptom also share the same version of a gene, that gene is likely to be involved in determining the symptom. This will require a broad dataset from volunteers of different ages, cultural and genetic backgrounds, and symptoms. To achieve this diversity the study will rely on engagement from a variety of channels globally, including the traditional press, social media and word of mouth.

The impact of the Coronagenes project is two-fold. Firstly, through identifying the genes influencing the severity or duration of illness, Coronagenes will support on-going laboratory and clinical research and also help to identify existing drugs that may help treatment. Furthermore, although the study will only recruit volunteers for the duration of the pandemic, the data gathered will support research for a much longer period, providing insight into the genetic susceptibility to long term COVID-19 effects. These long term effects, such as diabetes and myocarditis, are increasingly evident, pointing to the need to understand the long term consequences of COVID-19 on public health. Tenesa hopes that the study can be a valuable asset to public health by dynamically reacting to any emerging COVID-19 induced syndromes by “developing new online questionnaires and by linking to the health records of our volunteers”.

As the long-term health effects of COVID-19 continue to emerge, the Coronagenes project will be an important tool by providing data to help identify those genetically susceptible to severe or long-term COVID-19 symptoms, and accelerate attempts to treat these symptoms. To volunteer for the project, click here.

Written by Seán Dunphy and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

Seán’s thoughts… COVID-19 continues to take its toll on society and is likely to worsen as winter nears. The Sage scientific advisory group has suggested a possible 83,000 deaths across Britain this winter due to COVID-19. This prediction highlights how urgently solutions to the pandemic are needed. The Coronagenes project may prove to be a valuable source of data in the pursuit of such a solution, by providing a basis for the treatment of severe symptoms. However, it is my hope that a vaccine will eliminate the need for such treatments. Therefore, the true value of the project may be its ability to identify the long term health consequences of COVID-19.

A frightening pattern has emerged, of long-term COVID-19 induced syndromes. The COVIDiab registry, previously covered in EUSCi, will examine the link between COVID-19 and new on-set diabetes. However, diabetes is not the only long-term syndrome that has been linked to COVID-19, for example myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle which can cause debilitating fatigue and even stroke. Therefore, even if COVID-19 is successfully eradicated it may leave a lasting scar on public health in the form of these long-term symptoms. Coronagenes may be vital in gaining a quick understanding of the extent of these long term effects.

Find me on… Twitter @SeanJDunphy and LinkedIn @Seán Dunphy

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