The results of this study should not be overly worrisome and should be seen as an impetus to roll out vaccinations in more susceptible communities.
In early November 2021, an article published in the prestigious journal Nature identified a genetic mutation that may increase the risk of severe COVID-19 disease in South Asians.
Specifically, the mutation is associated with a double risk of respiratory failure in South Asians and affects a gene called LZTFL1.
The LZTFL1 gene is involved in the response of lung cells to the virus. This is because LZTFL1 controls the activity of the EMT signaling pathway in the lungs (increased EMT in COVID patients).
LZTFL1 was also found to affect viral clearance, according to another paper published in The Lancet in January 2022.
The mutation is thought to have been inherited from our Neanderthal ancestors, according to Professor Winston Morgan, an expert in applied toxicology, equity and holistic practice at the University of East London’s School of Health, Exercise and Biological Sciences. They are present in over 60% of South Asians, 15% of Europeans, and almost non-existent in Africans and East Asians.
The discovery of this variant has scientists excited, especially those interested in population genetics and molecular biology. Not only is it useful for scientific research, but it has implications for everyone, as it could open up new directions for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19, which is a sign of optimism. shared.
Dr Raghib Ali – Senior Clinical Research Associate, MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge; Covid-19 Independent and Race Adviser, Racism Unit, US Cabinet Office – said:
“This is an important study that helps in our ongoing efforts to find out why certain ethnic groups have higher Covid mortality rates, and in particular why outcomes or survival after infection are worse.”
Professor Frances Flinter, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Genetics at Guy’s & St Thomas NHS Trust, said:
“This is a really interesting study. Previously, differences in the risk of critical illness and death within racial groups have been attributed to socioeconomic differences, but this is clear. Clear.” Not so. “Should be the full explanation.”
The evidence, he said, is that the gene LZTFL1, a relatively new but understudied gene, has emerged and partly explains the differences in the risk of respiratory failure from COVID-19 between populations. This is an important step in our understanding of the differential susceptibility of certain individuals to critical illness and disease mortality.
According to Prof Flint, 60% of people have South Asian ancestry, while 15% of Europeans carry the mutation, which partly explains why the South Asian population has high hospitalization and mortality rates. higher.
Need to look carefully
While most researchers and experts were pleased with the discovery of this genetic mutation, many of them also called for a more cautious stance and not thinking too much.
According to Professor Morgan, the findings have raised unwanted attention in some communities.
He said he spoke to his South Asian friends and said they were concerned that their genes actually made them more susceptible to severe COVID-19. “In a future affected by the pandemic and where COVID-19 may be with us, if you have this gene in your system, what does that mean for things like life insurance??”
In addition, Professor Morgan fears the research will provide a “weapon” for those who want to divide people by race, as they believe genes are involved in how people behave and function. people. group. a certain society.
Meanwhile, Prof Flint noted that based on the above results, only 2% of people of Afro-Caribbean (African and Caribbean) ancestry carry the high-risk genotype (compared to 15% in humans). .Europe), but they have a higher mortality rate. Therefore, this genetic factor does not fully explain the increased mortality reported in black and minority communities.
To date, there is a strong consensus that the high mortality rate among minorities is mainly due to their higher risk of infection (working in positions with more communication). . , living in dense urban areas, larger areas and multi-generational households, especially South Asians) and lower social and medical conditions (especially blacks).