South Asian gene does not fully explain susceptibility to COVID-19 – Community News
Covid-19

South Asian gene does not fully explain susceptibility to COVID-19

The following op-ed is written by Winston Morgan, BS, Ph.D., FHEA, FRSB, professor of applied toxicology, equity and inclusive practice in the School of Health, Sport and Bioscience at the University of East London in the United Kingdom.

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A pedestrian walks past a mural of health workers in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 30, 2021. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP via Getty Images

AN recent research suggests that a variant of a gene called LZTFL1 may explain why South Asians are more susceptible to COVID-19. This gene normally helps cells in the lungs to respond to viral infections.

The variant is believed to have been inherited from our Neanderthal ancestors and is found in over 60% of South Asians and 15% of Europeans and is almost absent in Black Africans and East Asians.

For scientists, especially those interested in population genetics and molecular biology, this kind of research is very exciting. Science aside, such discoveries are important to everyone, as they could provide new diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19 and should generally be a cause for optimism.

Unfortunately, studies like these have other implications that could cause serious concern in the communities most affected by these discoveries, especially when the coverage is sensational.

I’ve talked to South Asian friends of mine who are concerned about what it might mean for them. They need to ask themselves whether their genes really make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. In a pandemic-ravaged future, where COVID-19 could always be with us, what could this mean for things like life insurance if you have the genes in question?

This type of research also provides ammunition for people with a genetic determinist mentality, who want to divide us on the basis of race and ethnicity.

Before anyone gets too excited, though, and despite the headlines, a closer look at the study tells a different story.

It makes many – as yet unproven – assumptions linking the existence of this variant to a series of cellular responses in the lungs following viral infection, which are necessary before there is any possibility of additional deaths in affected populations.

To accept this statement, we must also accept that this gene variant – which is said to make carriers more susceptible not only to COVID-19 but to coronaviruses in general, including flu – is found disproportionately and subsequently expressed in South Asians, which leads to negative consequences.

Such a sequence of events is not fully supported by real-world evidence and raises even more questions. The most obvious is that, given the prevalence and pathogenicity of coronaviruses in shaping modern human history, how has the South Asian population survived and thrived so well today?

For example, we are often told that coronaviruses are the main reason why the population of the New World was decimated when they came into contact with invading Europeans.

You would expect that such a gene linked to this type of vulnerability, to become so widespread in any population, would have to be associated with an additional and clear survival advantage in that population to counteract susceptibility to coronaviruses.

Currently, no such survival benefit has been identified, so perhaps the gene isn’t as lethal as the study suggests.

More importantly, why is there such a big difference between the impact of COVID-19 on Bangladeshis and Indians, with 60% of both populations sharing the same variant of LZTFL1? Why are black Africans who do not have the variant just as susceptible to the virus as the Bengali population, and what drives their susceptibility?

The problem with all of these gene-based explanations for susceptibility to COVID-19 — and with many other medical conditions — is that they easily shift the blame.

The blame goes to the people who are already suffering [the] most, rather than focusing on the structural problems in our societies; these are the real causes of the disproportionate deaths from COVID-19 related to race and ethnicity.

However, this study could contribute something important. It could help us understand why Neanderthals went extinct.

Could the presence of this gene variant in Neanderthals be an important driver for them? become extinct after a similar coronavirus pandemic thousands of years ago? This is a more interesting story.

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