Scientists at Oxford University have uncovered a specific gene that doubles the risk of respiratory failure from Covid-19.
The high-risk genetic signal is carried in 60% of people with South Asian ancestry compared with 15% of people with European heritage, according to the study published onThursday.
Researchers found that a higher-risk version of the gene most likely prevents the cells lining airways and the lungs from responding to the virus properly.
As per a report by Bloomberg, the findings also help explain the excess deaths seen in some south Asian communities across the UK as well as the impact that Covid has had in India.
However, the authors cautioned that the gene cannot be used as a sole explanation as many other factors, such as socioeconomic conditions, play a role. Despite a significant impact from the virus to people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry, only 2% carry the higher-risk genotype.
Dr Damien Downes, who led the laboratory work carried out by the research group, said: "Surprisingly, as several other genes were suspected, the data showed that a relatively unstudied gene called LZTFL1 causes the effect."
The findings raise the possibility of research into treatments specific to patients with this gene, though no tailored drugs are currently available.
This "shows that the way in which the lung responds to the infection is critical," said James Davies, co-lead author and associate professor of genomics at Oxford, who worked in intensive care during the pandemic. "This is important because most treatments have focused on changing the way in which the immune system reacts to the virus."
Davies and his colleagues found the gene by conducting an artificial intelligence algorithm that had been trained by the team to analyse huge quantities of genetic data from hundreds of types of cells from all parts of the body.
All other things being equal, "if you have the higher-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," Davies said on a briefing with reporters Thursday.