Most South Asians have a gene that doubles the risk of death due to respiratory failure from COVID-19, a new study from Oxford University shows.
Key findings: The study, which was published in Nature Genetics, found that 60% of people with South Asian ancestry carry a “higher-risk” version of a gene called LZTFL1. This version predisposes them to developing severe COVID-19.
- Researchers used artificial intelligence to study genetic data from hundreds of types of cells throughout the body. Through a new 3C (chromosome conformation capture) method called Micro Capture-C, they managed to identify LZTFL1 as the gene that causes an increased risk of respiratory failure.
- They believe LZTFL1 prevents the cells from lining the airways and the lungs from fighting the coronavirus. “Surprisingly, as several other genes were suspected, the data showed that a relatively unstudied gene called LZTFL1 causes the effect,” lead researcher Damien Downes said in a statement.
- In comparison, LZTFL1 was found only in 15% of Europeans. It is also less frequent among those with Afro-Caribbean ancestry (2%).
The big picture: Having the higher-risk version of LZTFL1 does not immediately translate to higher COVID-19 death rates, the researchers said. For one, it is not present in all Black and other ethnic minority communities ― which still saw high death tolls ― and there are other variables to consider, including socioeconomic factors.
- Still, the genetic factor explains why some people become seriously ill after contracting the virus, said study co-lead James Davies. LZTFL1 can thus be a therapeutic target for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. “It shows that the way in which the lung responds to the infection is critical. This is important because most treatments have focussed on changing the way in which the immune system reacts to the virus,” Davies said.
- India, the largest country in South Asia, suffered a second wave of COVID-19 that placed it as the pandemic’s new epicenter ― second only to the U.S. ― earlier this year. In the U.K., the risk of South Asians dying from COVID-19 was found to be about five times higher than white British people, ranging from 1.6 times for Indian women to 4.8 times for Pakistani men, according to the BBC.