Oct 10, 2020 - Health

How genes might predict the risk for severe COVID-19

a mask

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A startup is developing a genetic test that could identify people at risk of an inflammatory overreaction to COVID-19.

Why it matters: If we can predict who might be in danger of a severe COVID-19 case, we can focus prevention and potentially treatment on those who might need it the most.

What's happening: Earlier this week, the biotech company GoodCell announced a program with the New York Blood Center to study how genetic variations in the blood can contribute to COVID-19 severity.

How it works: GoodCell offers personal biobanking, which allows customers to withdraw and store blood cells so they can potentially be used for treatments in the future, like CAR-T or stem cell therapy.

  • As part of that service, GoodCell has developed genetic tests to assess the quality of the donated cells, including certain mutations that are connected to an increase in risk for cardiovascular disease through abnormal inflammation.
  • Many severe cases of COVID-19, especially in younger patients, featured an inflammatory overreaction called a cytokine storm.
  • "We found parallels between patients getting sick from cytokine storms and the accumulated genetic changes connected to cardiovascular disease," says Salvatore Viscomi, chief medical officer at GoodCell.

By the numbers: A French study in July of 122 hospitalized COVID-19 patients found a correlation between the presence of the mutations and a higher likelihood of ending up on a ventilator.

  • GoodCell is working on its own clinical study on the question, with the aim of creating a test that could identify those genetic risk factors in the wider population.
  • "If you know you're at risk of getting more than the sniffles from [COVID-19], you would be more likely to change your behavior," says Viscomi.

Yes, but: COVID-19 is still a new disease, and it's likely that a variety of factors ultimately combine to determine the severity of an infection.

The bottom line: One of the biggest challenges of COVID-19 is just how varied its presentation is, from no symptoms at all to sudden death. But our genes may help predict the most likely outcome before we even get sick.

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