Covid Scotland: Ground-breaking genetic study suggests possible Covid treatments

A study led by scientists at Edinburgh University may explain why some people suffer more serious Covid-19 than others, and pave the way for more effective treatments.

The world’s largest study of its kind, involving more than 57,000 people, identified 16 new genetic variants associated with severe Covid-19, including some related to blood clotting, immune response and inflammation.

Scientists hope the findings will prove a “big step forward” in highlighting key treatments for further study.

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Researchers from the GenOMICC consortium – a global collaboration to study genetics in critical illness – led by Edinburgh University in partnership with Genomics England, sequenced the genomes of 7,491 patients from 224 intensive care units in the UK.

A member of staff at University Hospital Monklands attends to a Covid-positive patient on the ICU ward on February 5, 2021 in Airdrie, Scotland. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Their DNA was compared with 48,400 other people who had not had Covid-19, participants in Genomics England's 100,000 Genomes Project and that of a further 1,630 people who had experienced mild Covid.

The team found key differences in 16 genes in the ICU patients when compared with the DNA of the other groups.

They also confirmed the involvement of seven other genetic variations already associated with severe Covid-19 discovered in earlier studies from the same team.

The study highlighted one gene variant, called interferon alpha-10, which disrupts a key messenger molecule in the immune system and increases a patient’s risk of severe disease.

Professor Kenneth Baillie, the project’s chief investigator and Consultant in Critical Care Medicine at Edinburgh University.

Variations in Factor 8, an essential blood-clotting protein, were also associated with more serious illness.

Professor Kenneth Baillie, chief investigator and a consultant in critical care medicine at Edinburgh University, said this study would pave the way for future research.

"These results explain why some people develop life-threatening Covid-19, while others get no symptoms at all,” he said.

"But more importantly, this gives us a deep understanding of the process of disease and is a big step forward in finding more effective treatments.

“It is now true to say that we understand the mechanisms of Covid better than the other syndromes we treat in intensive care in normal times – sepsis, flu, and other forms of critical illness. Covid-19 is showing us the way to tackle those problems in the future.”

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Professor Sir Mark Caulfield of Queen Mary University of London, co-author on the study and formerly chief scientist at Genomics England, said: "This is a really important study because today we extend the role of whole genome sequencing from rare disease and cancer, which is already on our NHS, to infectious disease and how we as humans respond to exposure to a virus that none of us knew about two-and-a-half years ago.

"As a result, we've narrowed down and can focus on 16 regions of your and my genetic code that can contribute to someone being admitted to critical care.”

Dr Richard Scott, chief medical officer at Genomics England, said the results would have a “real impact in patient care”.

The team pointed to previous results of the same study, which in December 2020 highlighted arthritis drug baricitinib as a potential treatment for Covid.

This drug has since been used to treat the disease. Results of a trial led by Oxford University published last week showed the drug reduces deaths in patients hospitalised with Covid by around a fifth.

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