Do your genetics make you more prone to COVID-19? Geneticists work to unravel mysteries

In this pandemic, we have learned that people older than 65 and those with health problems such as asthma, diabetes and compromised immune systems are most likely to get very sick or die.

But we don't know yet why seemingly healthy young people who take cautions such as wearing a mask and physically distancing still get the virus, become extremely ill and sometimes die.

It's something scientists are trying to understand, and they are turning to genetics to see whether some people have inherited factors that make them more susceptible to illness.

"Understanding basic research on how coronaviruses work and how our immune system reacts with those coronaviruses was one of the big legs up we had," said geneticist Martin Ferris at the University of North Carolina.

Ferris is one of a platoon of genetic researchers in UNC labs that have been studying coronaviruses for years.

They are joined worldwide by an army of geneticists now looking specifically at one single coronavirus -- SARS-CoV2 -- the one that causes COVID-19.

"There've been several studies that have been coming out recently that are pointing to specific genes and regions of our genome that have variants that contribute to severe disease," Ferris said.

Ferris said, however, that the study of the data has just begun.

It is narrowly focused right now on finding drugs that can treat and prevent the virus, he noted.

"As we transition into having a larger portion of the population vaccinated, researchers will have the time to kind of go back through the full breadth of the disease data," Ferris said.

Lack of data, Ferris added, has in the past been the biggest obstacle for geneticists researching illnesses.

But that is certainly not the case with COVID-19.

He expects a deep dive into the massive amount of information in the coming years to discover not only who is more genetically susceptible to COVID-19 and why, but also how to better treat those people.

"The pharmaceutical companies and the whole pharmaceutical research industry can go through their libraries of drugs and treatments to identify treatments that target that given gene," Ferris said.

An added benefit, according to the geneticist, is all that genetic research is also likely to play a role in fighting future diseases, just like UNC's research on earlier coronaviruses helped quickly develop a vaccine for this one.
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