RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Your DNA determines your hair color, the color of your eyes, even your height, but what if it could also tell you how sick you may get from COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, pioneering research has been underway with DNA, which may provide clues to defeat the virus.
In April 2020, COVID-19 was raging and the medical community was struggling to make sense of it. At the time, Dr. Erik Blutinger of Mt. Sinai Hospital said, “I’m seeing young patients, old patients, people of all ages who are incredibly sick.”
The coronavirus seemed indiscriminate; some people got extremely ill, while others had minor symptoms.
Eventually, scientists began to realize DNA holds the answer.
Dr. Martin Ferris, who studies genetics, vaccines and immunology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine, said genetics play a role in how sick you will get from the coronavirus.
“Your DNA can make the difference between susceptibility and long-term immunity of infectious diseases,” he explained. “The challenge has been in identifying the specific genes that have been driving those differences.”
As the pandemic flourished, the medical and research communities worldwide combined efforts to fight the virus. They created the COVID-19 Genetics Initiative, a data pooling effort where research and developments are shared in real-time.
Ferris said it is starting to pay off.
“There have been a number of studies that have come out pointing to specific genetic variance associated with more severe covid disease,” he said.
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The research is also shedding light on the interaction between the virus and the immune system helping to create new ways to treat COVID-19.
“What’s exciting about those is that several are pointing to candidates that can be modified by common drug treatments that have been developed for other diseases,” said Ferris.
Some of that DNA research has resulted in things that you can use right now.
The DNA testing company 23andMe has an online tool that tries to predict how severe or mild your COVID-19 symptoms will be. They call it a severity calculator.
“You can put in your age, your co-morbidity such as your body mass, frequency of exercise, and it will tell you the percentage of people in our study that were hospitalized,” explained Janie Shelton, a senior scientist at 23andMe.
The calculator doesn’t represent the general U.S. population and the company admits there are also biases in the data that could affect the model because it doesn’t include data for people who died from COVID-19.
Shelton said the tool is only as good as the sample you have.
Among its findings — people who exercise tend have a lower risk of COVID-19 hospitalization.
The calculator uses a database of more than 1 million people who submitted their DNA to the company. From those people, it conducted a survey to see if any were affected by the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, other genetic research being done by 23andMe has helped advance the knowledge exponentially.
“COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of scientific research beyond anything I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Shelton.
The super-speed in which COVID-19 vaccines were developed points the way for genetics research.
The continued collection of DNA worldwide adds to the growing database which researchers said can also speed the development of therapeutics to treat those already infected with the virus.
“As the genetics data rolls out that will be applied very quickly in the clinic because we know drugs that will target the pathways,” said Ferris.
DNA breakthroughs are not going to be limited to the coronavirus. In the future, genetic research done on COVID-19 can be applied to help them deal with other diseases as well.