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Science & Tech

We Are Slowly but Steadily Unraveling the Genetics of This Pandemic

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Today, a team led by scientists at Scripps Research announced they had discovered a common feature found in many of the human antibodies that neutralize SARS-CoV-2:

The scientists, whose study appears July 13 in Science, reviewed data on nearly 300 anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies that their labs and others have found in convalescent COVID-19 patients over the past few months. They noted that a subset of these antibodies is particularly powerful at neutralizing the virus — and these potent antibodies are all encoded, in part, by the same antibody gene, IGHV3-53.

Genes are likely to play a factor in which antibodies are most effective against the virus, just as genes probably play a factor in who can fight off the virus easily and who succumb to it rapidly.

You probably heard about the New Jersey family that lost four members in rapid succession, including one who had no discernable previous health issues, or the elderly Louisiana woman and her three sons all dying within a week or so, or the three members of a family dying in rapid succession in Florida. Genetics were probably not the only reason these families were struck so severely, but if one parent had genes that made them particularly vulnerable to this particular strain of SARS-CoV-2, they may have passed along those genes to their children.

Yet there are people more than 100 years old — sometimes overweight or obese, smokers, and non-exercisers who catch the virus and manage to pull through. They’re blessed with genetics that makes their immune systems and white blood cells work effectively, even if their health is not ideal otherwise.

At the beginning of June, teams of medical researchers in Germany, Spain, and Italy found “variations at two spots in the human genome are associated with an increased risk of respiratory failure in patients with Covid-19. . . . One of these spots includes the gene that determines blood types. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator.”

The other spot on the genome is six genes on Chromosome 3; earlier this month, additional research determined that this stretch of DNA was passed along from Neanderthals 60,000 years ago. The thinking is, the more this particular gene or genes are in a person’s genetic code, the more vulnerable they are to SARS-CoV-2.

From a layman’s perspective, genetics is weird and pretty darn unfair; science has determined that some small populations of human beings have near-immunity to anthrax and malaria. Some people might be unnerved at this sort of research, looking for connections between genes and vulnerability to diseases, as it could feed into notions that some people are genetically “superior,” and represent a step down the road to eugenics. But recognizing the reality of genetic differences does not inherently require one to think of other human beings as “lesser” in any way. Look hard enough at anybody’s genome and you’ll probably find some gene that puts them at a disadvantage in one circumstance or another.

If we’re going to beat this virus, we have to understand it as thoroughly as possible — including clues as to who might be more vulnerable to it and why.

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