LONDON (Reuters) – British researchers will study the genes of thousands of patients with COVID-19 to try to solve one of the most puzzling puzzles of a novel coronavirus: why does it kill some people but make others not have mild headaches?
PHOTO FILE: A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin, showing a model that structurally represents a betacoronavirus which is a type of virus associated with COVID-19, better known as a coronavirus associated with the Wuhan outbreak, shared with Reuters on February 18, 2020. NEXU Science Communication / via REUTERS
Researchers from all over the UK will sort the genetic code of people who are critically ill with COVID-19 and compare their genomes with those who are mildly ill or not at all sick.
The hunt for specific genes that can cause a tendency to become sick with COVID-19 will involve up to 20,000 people currently or previously in hospital intensive care with COVID-19 and around 15,000 people with mild symptoms.
Scientists warn that their knowledge of the new corona virus, which emerged in China last year, is still simple although they say it’s surprising how it can be very deadly for some people but very light for others.
Until now the reason is not clear.
“We think that there will be clues in the genome that will help us understand how this disease kills people,” Kenneth Baillie, an intensive care doctor who led research at the University of Edinburgh, told Reuters.
“I’m willing to bet my house has a very strong genetic component to individual risk,” Baillie said.
The genome is a complete set of deoxyribonucleic acid, or organism’s DNA, and in humans contains about 3 billion base pairs of DNA.
But comparing them can be difficult. There are 4 million to 5 million differences between two people so scientists need large samples, Baillie said.
“We don’t know at a mechanistic level, at the molecular and cell level, what events actually caused people to get sick and die from this disease,” he said.
Baillie will work with intensive care units throughout the UK, British Genomics and a global genetic research consortium known as Genetic Vulnerability and Death in Critical Care, or GenOMICC.
“By reading the entire genome we can identify variations that affect the response to Covid-19 and find new therapies that can reduce harm, save lives, and even prevent future outbreaks,” said Mark Caulfield, chief scientist at Genomics England.
Some answers can come immediately within a few weeks of a study of nearly 2,000 people already in progress, Baillie said, although the possibility of testing more people will ensure that the signal they detect is authentic.
The results will be shared globally.
“Your chances of dying from an infection are strongly encoded in your genes – far stronger than your chances of dying from heart disease or cancer,” Baillie said.
Reported by Guy Faulconbridge, Editing by Angus MacSwan
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