Covid breakthrough as scientists identify ‘high risk’ gene that doubles risk of death

Jonathan Van-Tam: UK is 'running hot' with COVID-19 cases

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The gene, which is officially known as LZTFL1, is fairly common among people of European descent, but even more so among people of South African extraction. It is estimated about 15 percent of people with a European background carry a high-risk version of the gene, compared to 60 percent of people with a South Asian background. According to the authors of a study published in the journal Nature Genetics, the risky gene does not appear to affect all populations equally.

The LZTFL1 gene is only present in about two percent of people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry and about 1.8 percent of people of East Asian descent.

The disparities may help to explain in part why some communities in the UK were harder hit by the pandemic than others, the researchers said.

However, other risk factors such as age, still play a critical role in the severity of Covid.

Lead researcher Professor James Davies at the University of Oxford told the BBC: “Socio-economic factors were also likely to be important in explaining why some communities have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic.

“Although we cannot change our genetics, our results show that the people with the higher risk gene are likely to particularly benefit from vaccination.”

According to the researchers, the LZTFL1 gene makes people’s lungs more susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

When a person catches the virus, cells lining the lungs initiate a clever defence mechanism.

They become less specialised and shed some ACE2 receptors on their surface, which the coronavirus uses to get inside.

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Although not foolproof, the process offers some natural protection against the pathogen.

However, the LZTFL1 gene appears to inhibit this process, making it considerably easier for the virus to infect the lungs.

Instead of weakening the immune system, the researchers believe the gene is responsible for making physical changes in the lungs.

But the good news is that the increased risk does not appear to cancel out the immunity provided by vaccination.

Instead, the researchers believe their discovery could lead to new, specialised treatment tailored towards people with genetic predispositions for infection.

The discovery comes after the UK approved the world’s first pill designed to treat COVID-19.

The wonderdrug was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Thursday after being branded “safe and effective” after numerous studies.

Officials at the MHRA said the antiviral Lagevrio (molnupiravir) can help reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Today is a historic day for our country, as the UK is now the first country in the world to approve an antiviral that can be taken at home for COVID-19.

“This will be a gamechanger for the most vulnerable and the immunosuppressed, who will soon be able to receive the ground-breaking treatment.”

He added: “We are working at pace across the government and with the NHS to set out plans to deploy molnupiravir to patients through a national study as soon as possible

“This antiviral will be an excellent addition to our armoury against COVID-19, and it remains vital everyone comes forward for their life-saving COVID-19 vaccine – particularly those eligible for a booster – to ensure as many people as possible are protected over the coming months.”

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