How genetics is helping fight COVID-19

Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD, President, American Society of Human Genetics

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a jarring challenge to public health and economies worldwide. Even as we all navigate the crisis and its effect on personal health, professional lives and larger national strategies, I am heartened by the application of science in the public health response to the crisis, and inspired by the ways in which the genetics and genomics community is applying its knowledge and resources to play its part in addressing the pandemic.

Time and again, health crises remind us of the importance of public funding for biomedical research, and the COVID-19 pandemic provides us with yet another example. Fundamental to combatting the virus is tracing its origin and understanding its biology. Genome sequencing technologies have been critical for accomplishing this. Because such technologies are available to scientists, the coronavirus genome was rapidly sequenced and shared with the world just two weeks after the disease emerged in Wuhan, China in late December.

Sequencing technologies are available to us because of decades-long investments funded by the National Institutes of Health to develop DNA and RNA sequencing methods that are rapid, inexpensive and accurate. To date, over 2,000 genome sequences from patient samples on six continents have been uploaded and shared on an international platform known as the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID). This data allows scientists to track the spread of the virus, understand its evolution and is essential information for researchers developing diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments.

Clues in our genes?

Among the mysteries that scientists, the clinical community and governments are grappling with is why some individuals are more susceptible to the disease than others. Many leaders and members of the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) are leading efforts to investigate this. Past ASHG presidents Leslie Biesecker and Nancy Cox are part of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, an endeavor launched just last month to “bring together the human genetics community to generate, share and analyze data to learn the genetic determinants of COVID-19 susceptibility, severity and outcomes.”

There are many other investigations now underway. One is led by researchers at Rockefeller University, where an international team is investigating genetic pathways that may confer susceptibility to COVID-19 in younger patients. The UK Biobank, with genomic data for 500,000 participants, is aiming to add COVID-19 data from participants to the database. The Personal Genome Project at Harvard Medical School has tapped into its participants, who have shared their genomic and health data, to ask for their COVID-19 status. Meanwhile, other human genomics labs, such as at the Broad Institute, are redeploying their resources to perform COVID-10 testing of patients.

The critical role of biomedical research

As the numbers of deaths caused by COVID-19 rise at an alarming rate worldwide, there is a major effort underway to better understand the coronavirus, the disease, and the ways in which we can save lives and reduce suffering. The biomedical research community, with the support of public funding from the NIH, is playing a critical role in providing answers and developing novel solutions. Knowledge gained from decades of human genetics and genomics research is a vital component of that effort today, and will form the foundation for future prevention and therapeutic strategies for tomorrow’s health challenges.

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If concerted, long-term investments in research are not made, America will lose an entire generation of young scientists.
Brenda Canine, PhD; McLaughlin Research Institute, Montana