digital dna

Using DNA For Coronavirus COVID-19 Patterns & Links

A study conducted by Oxford University and Edinburgh University has suggested that coronavirus came to the UK from Europe, with only a tiny amount from Asia. Another report from the University of Exeter suggests that our genetic make- up may help determine how we react to coronavirus. Here we investigate how our understanding of DNA is helping scientists better understand this deadly virus.

First of all lets establish what coronavirus is. It is still unclear how it originated but it is believed that coronavirus originated in bats or pangolins and was first transmitted to humans in Wuhan in the province of Hubei in China in December 2019. Coronavirus itself is the name for a group of viruses and this new strain is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS Cov 2 ). The respiratory disease that triggers it is known as Covid 19.

Viruses themselves are microscopic organisms that exist almost everywhere. They consist of genetic material -RNA or DNA. SARS Covid 2 uses RNA or to give it its correct name ribonucleic acid. The World health Organisation declared a pandemic on March 11th 2020, at that stage it was prevalent in 110 countries worldwide. Now it is present in 213 countries.

COG UK Research

COG UK is behind the research looking at how coronavirus first entered the UK. It stands for the Covid 19 UK Genomics Consortium. It is funded by the Department of Health and is made up of various NHS bodies, Public Health England, equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Universities and research labs. 

The Research Findings

The research has found that rather than the infection in the UK being due to one person travelling into the country with the virus, at least 1300 hundred people bought the virus into the UK. This figure is also seen as a conservative estimate. So in other words it was inbound international travel from a number of countries that brought the virus into the UK. The research is also clear that three main countries; France, Italy and Spain, were the source of the virus.

The researchers looked at samples from 16,500 people who tested positive and compared them to samples taken in other countries. 34% of the SARS Cov 2 sample could be linked to Spain, 29% to France and 14% to Italy and 23%’ elsewhere’. In fact, only 0.08% of cases could be linked directly to China. The research has inflamed the argument that the UK should have closed its borders earlier, particularly as it appears that outbreaks of the virus have been worse in areas with large international airports in them.

It is also suggested that the opposite is also true. That not only were we importing the virus we also exported virus lineages to other countries from the UK.

How DNA Was Used

Researchers in the study were able to look at samples from across the world and establish the ‘last common ancestors” of each strain of the virus found in the UK. This is possible as viruses and their genetic material look different in different places and at different times. Scientists describe this as the virus establishing a different ‘lineage’ dependent on the area and time when it is taken. So it is possible to look at a sample of the virus today and look at where the ancestors of that virus came from.

It is still believed that the virus started in China, so logically all virus lineages will be traced back to China.

Gene Variants and Covid 19

The second research conducted by the University of Exeter has looked at why some people seem to really suffer from this virus and ultimately die of it whilst others experience pretty mild symptoms. In fact it is true that many people appear to have had the disease and been asymptomatic.

The suggestion is that our DNA may hold part of the answer. The gene- APOE which helps the body transport fats is seen as a risk factor. So if you have the APO-E4 form of the gene you are twice as likely to succumb to the disease. The research has yet to be fully verified. 

23andme And Covid 19 Research

As indicated in the research from Exeter University it has been suggested that gene variants may explain why we are all responding so differently to coronavirus. With this in mind 23andme have joined the research.

With a database of more then 10 million users, 80% of whom have given their consent for their DNA to be used in research, they certainly can offer a huge amount of data. In fact this data is able to offer up an incredible amount of detail, for example on how many cigarettes a donor has smoked during their life. Data like this could help scientists understand more about individual responses to the pandemic.

The research is only based on 23andme customers in the US but highlights just how important DNA could be going forward. So if you are a customer of 23andme in the US you will receive a questionnaire which asks you whether you have been tested for Covid 19 and whether you had a positive or negative test and also what your symptoms have been. Those who test positive will then be asked further questions about their symptoms and whether they were hospitalised or not. The hope is that once all data is in scientists will be able to spot something similar in the genetic code of those who shared similar symptoms. In this way genetic variants could provide a link with Covid 19.

Genes that are involved with the body’s immune system will obviously be of interest but also the gene that codes for the ACE2 receptor has been highlighted. This is found on the surface of the lung and in other cells and seems to be the way SARS Cov 2 gets into the body. Variations in this gene could explain why some people have worse infiltrations that others. Other variations in the gene could include the amount of gene activity. The example given is that less gene activity could result in less receptors for Covid 19 to latch onto. It is early days in this type of research but hopefully it will add to the knowledge scientists are desperately trying to acquire to fully understand this virus.

In Summary

There are now a number of genetic sequencing projects taking place around the world. Some are ongoing projects that started before Covid, others are now dedicated solely to understanding Covid 19. What does seem clear is that a patients age, underlying health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease and their ability to be tested and treated early all play a crucial part. The hope however is that DNA studies could also provide a vital piece of the jigsaw in allowing us to understand and better treat this virus, which to date has killed 436,000 people worldwide and which there is currently no vaccine.