Why do some people suffer worse from COVID-19? New studies identify a genetic mutation

94 percent of men in the study have this mutation, which explains why men are more likely to die.

Why do some people suffer worse from COVID-19? New studies identify a genetic mutation
Photo: PopTika / Shutterstock
  • Since the pandemic began, we've wondered why some people suffer terribly while others show no symptoms.
  • A team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute discovered a genetic mutation responsible for the production of "auto-antibodies."
  • These findings could change treatment protocols and vaccine development moving forward.

As the nation woke up to the news that numerous White House officials have tested positive for COVID-19, one question stands out among many: Why are some people more susceptible to the virus than others? Two new studies from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute offer potential reasons.

In February, a team led by Jean-Laurent Cassanova began enrolling COVID-19 patients. They wanted to know why some young people were susceptible to falling gravely ill while others remained asymptomatic. By March, they had enrolled 500 patients. That number swelled to over 3,000 as of last month.

The team found that roughly 3.5 percent of study patients suffer from gene mutations in antiviral defense. At least 10 percent of patients create "auto-antibodies" that attack the patient's own immune system. The two studies, both published in the journal Science, address these two problems. As Cassanova says,

"These two papers provide the first explanation for why COVID-19 can be so severe in some people, while most others infected by the same virus are okay."

The coronavirus is mutating. Now what?

The Findings

The genetic mutations slow down interferon—a group of signaling proteins released in the presence of viruses—production and function. This particular mutation makes these patients vulnerable to certain pathogens, such as the flu. Of the 659 patients initially tested in the Spring, 23 carried gene errors, rendering them unable to produce the necessary antiviral interferons to fight off COVID-19.

They then tested 987 patients, of which 101 produced auto-antibodies. All of these patients had trouble fending off the ravages of the virus. By testing people for these mutations, the team believes they can predict who will suffer most from the virus, even before they become infected.

Interestingly, 94 percent of patients that develop harmful antibodies are men, which helps explain why men are more likely to die from COVID-19. Cassanova is now investigating whether the production of these auto-antibodies is linked to X chromosomes. Even small genetic errors, the team says, could be responsible for this phenomenon.

cleaning tables at restaurant

Photo: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

Why It Matters

If researchers can pinpoint genetic markers in healthy patients, this could open up an entirely new testing protocol. People with this genetic mutation will know they are at higher risk for life-threatening problems, and will be able to take precautions until a vaccine is developed.

This could also affect treatment protocols. The team is looking into procedures that strip these auto-antibodies from patients' blood, for example. They're also investigating protective genetic factors by studying asymptomatic patients. Just as the virus exploits the above genetic mutation, others are naturally protected. They want to know why.

In regards to the vaccine, this research helps identify high-risk groups. People carrying this genetic mutation could receive the vaccine first, if these studies hold up.

With all of the above work happening at the center, it's no wonder Cassanova concludes, "Our lab is currently running at full speed."

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."


This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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