During this global health crisis, 23andMe is activating its millions of consenting research participants to help contribute to our collective understanding of the new virus that causes COVID-19.
This week, 23andMe scientists began a study of COVID-19, to understand how genetics may influence the differences in severity of the disease among people.
A person’s age, exposure, and underlying health determine much of these differences, but genetics also likely plays a role. We know that for other infectious diseases, genetics can influence susceptibility, but what about the severity of symptoms?
How genetics might impact COVID-19
Our existing research platform allows us to conduct this study quickly and on a large scale.
“We have been looking at how 23andMe can leverage its research platform to help better understand how humans might respond to this virus,” said Joyce Tung, Ph.D., 23andMe’s Vice President of Research. “Ultimately, we want to publish our research findings in order to help provide more insight on COVID-19 for the scientific community.”
23andMe scientists can quickly look for genetic variants that are more common among research participants who are sick with the virus, and see if there are genetic differences in those with the most severe symptoms.
The Study of COVID-19
Beginning this week, 23andMe hopes to enroll hundreds of thousands of 23andMe customers in the United States to participate in this study, which will include both individuals who have and have not tested positive for the virus.
The study, which will be conducted using online surveys, may also include contributions from those with family members that have experienced an infection. As with all our research, an external and independent ethics committee known as an institutional review board will oversee the work.
It’s critical to note this study will be longitudinal in nature. We will be asking people to participate in an initial baseline survey and inviting them back to take an additional survey on a monthly basis. This will enable us to collect data regarding new infections in the population should the outbreak continue to spread.
A Genome-Wide Association Study
Our scientists then will run a genome-wide association study. The purpose is to identify genetic variants associated with differences in the severity of the disease.
While we hope to gain insights from this research, there are no guarantees that we will find that genetics plays a significant role. In fact, the best possible outcome is that the pandemic decelerates, which could leave us unable to identify people with COVID-19, and would limit our ability to identify genetic associations.
However, if we can identify genetic variants associated with severe symptoms, scientists may be able to better understand who is more at risk due to genetic predispositions. These genetic insights could also give scientists a better understanding of how the novel coronavirus infects our cells and impacts our bodies.
1. Chapman SJ et al. (2012). “Human genetic susceptibility to infectious disease.” Nat Rev Genet. 13(3):175-88.
2. Tian C et al. (2017). “Genome-wide association and HLA region fine-mapping studies identify susceptibility loci for multiple common infections.” Nat Commun. 8(1):599.