Genetic testing

New gene research aims to identify those most at risk from COVID-19

Researchers in the UK are hoping to discover why COVID-19 affects some people much more strongly than others.

It is hoped it could lead to isolating those at higher risk in potential future waves of the disease and allowing those identified as low-risk to restart the economy.

The study – led by Genomics England and the University of Edinburgh – will sequence the genetic material of 20,000 patients who’ve been in intensive care with COVID-19 and 15,000 people who've experienced milder symptoms.

The findings should then help shape treatments for the current outbreak and potentially mitigate against – or even avoid - further waves of COVID-19.

Professor Sir Mark Caulfield, chief scientist at Genomics England, told Euronews they will attempt to discover why some people become severely ill and why others only experience mild symptoms - or are even unaffected:

“By using the two groups, we may be able to identify factors that get us to new therapies, probably (involving) medicines that already exist, that we can bring forward into trial to support people when they become severely ill - or even help to prevent people becoming ill.”

Sir Mark said it was differing genetic makeup that was the key factor.

“We all have a genome of three billion letters and within that genome, every few letters there’s a variation," he said.

“For some, if they come across an (infection) like coronavirus, it may lead to them becoming severely ill - possibly due to their own immune response to the infection, but also due to how well they admit the virus inside the body. These factors can be unravelled by genetics.

“We know that all of us possess rare - and common – variations in our DNA that can affect our immune status.”

Sir Mark believes this could help scientists define people who should be in high-risk categories:

“A possibility is that if we succeed, we may be able to discern earlier who should isolate.

“The other potential benefit is, that by identifying people who are at very low risk - or have already been infected and recovered - they could return to work.

“So in terms of kickstarting the European economy, we need a range of measures to safely enable our citizens to return to their workplace and bring some normality back to day-to-day life.”