TAIPEI, TAIWAN, Aug 31, 2023- The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably left an indelible mark on the world, resulting in the tragic loss of countless lives. Yet, amidst the devastation, a peculiar observation emerged: certain individuals contracted the virus but displayed no symptoms. A pioneering study by researchers at UC San Francisco suggests that these asymptomatic cases might be attributed to specific genetic variations.
Their groundbreaking study provides the first concrete evidence that genetics significantly influence the manifestation of symptoms in SARS-CoV-2 infections. It sheds light on the perplexing question of why some individuals can carry the virus without exhibiting any signs of illness.
While most studies focused on people with severe symptoms, the team led by UC San Francisco adopted a unique approach by focusing on asymptomatic individuals. Alexander Mentzer, an expert in infectious diseases, praised this different angle of research. They looked at 29,947 volunteers who had their genes studied earlier after donating their bone marrow to help others. From this group, 1428 individuals who identified as White participated in the study. They used a smartphone app to report and trace if they got infected, tested positive for the virus, and developed symptoms.
The researchers found a connection between a gene called HLA-B*15:01 and people who didn't get symptoms after getting infected. They discovered that those who carried this gene variant were more than twice as likely to remain symptom-free post-infection. If someone had two copies of this gene, they were even more protected. About 20% of symptom-free people had this gene, compared to only 9% of people who had symptoms.
The researchers had two ideas about why this gene was protective. One, it might help the immune system recognize the virus better. Two, people with this gene might have immune cells that remembered another previous virus, thereby bolstering their defense against COVID-19. They found evidence for the second idea when they studied blood cells from the volunteers.
This pivotal discovery shows that some people had innate genetic protection against COVID-19. This protection might also help against other infections. Intriguingly, the prevalence of this gene varies a lot across different populations due to natural selection. For example, it's more common in China than in Europe.
This finding not only helps us understand how our body defends against COVID-19 but also helps clear up misconceptions. Some people questioned how serious the virus was when they heard about cases where one partner got very sick, but the other was fine. This research gives a solid scientific explanation for these cases.
The scientific community is optimistic that even though this finding won't change the minds of people who believe in miracle cures, it will help educate those who are open to science-based explanations.
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