Scientists solve why some people die from Covid and not others

·3-min read

The mystery behind why some people die from Covid and not others has been revealed in a new study.

Scientists at Oxford University discovered a piece of DNA that doubles the risk of death from coronavirus.

The gene, called LZTFL1, stops lung cells from fighting off coronavirus and can lead to respiratory failure where oxygen cannot reach vital organs.

Some 15% of Britons and Europeans could have the gene while people of South Asian heritage are at greater risk, with more than three in five thought to have it.

Study co-lead Professor James Davies said: “If you have the high risk genotype and you get very unwell with Covid, there’s a 50% chance that that wouldn’t have happened to you had you had the lower risk genotype.”

Experts say the gene could be partly why South Asian people in the UK have been worse affected by Covid.

Just 2% of people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry carried the higher risk gene, which does not completely explain the higher death rates reported for black and minority ethnic communities.

“The genetic factor we have found explains why some people get very seriously ill after coronavirus infection,” said Prof Davies, an associate professor of genomics at Oxford University.

“It shows that the way in which the lung responds to the infection is critical.

Covid-19 was the leading cause of death in England every month from November 2020 to February 2021 (PA)
Covid-19 was the leading cause of death in England every month from November 2020 to February 2021 (PA)

“This is important because most treatments have focused on changing the way in which the immune system reacts to the virus.”

Researchers said the higher risk gene probably prevents the cells from lining airways and the lungs from responding properly to the virus.

However, the team found that the gene does not affect the immune cells but instead hits the lungs instead.

It means people with the gene should still respond fully to the Covid vaccine which will counteract the extra risk, they believe.

Mel Whiteley receives a Covid-19 booster jab at Croydon University Hospital, south London (PA)
Mel Whiteley receives a Covid-19 booster jab at Croydon University Hospital, south London (PA)

“Since the genetic signal affects the lung rather than the immune system, it means that the increased risk should be cancelled out by the vaccine,” Prof Davies said.

“Although we cannot change our genetics, our results show that the people with the higher risk gene are likely to particularly benefit from vaccination.”

Previous research found a stretch of DNA which doubled the risk of adults under the age of 65 from Covid, but it was not known how this worked to increase the risk.

Professor Jim Hughes, study co-lead at the University of Oxford, said: “The reason this has proved so difficult to work out is that the previously identified genetic signal affects the ‘dark matter’ of the genome.

“We found that the increased risk is not because of a difference in gene coding for a protein, but because of a difference in the DNA that makes a switch to turn a gene on.”

Scientists spotted the gene using AI and the latest technologies which show the DNA makeup in superb detail.

The team hopes that medicine and other therapies could help prevent the lung lining from transforming to less specialised cells.

It raises the possibility of new treatments customised for those most likely to get severe symptoms.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Genetics.

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