By Dr. Brandon Colby, MD, a medical expert specializing in personalized preventive medicine and clinical genomics
Coronavirus and DNA have already been found to go hand-in-hand in two areas:
1. How vulnerable someone is to contracting the virus
2. The severity level of the virus
The purpose of DNA testing for COVID-19 is to bring to light how incredibly important it is for people to protect themselves during this global pandemic.
Coronaviruses are groups of pathogens referred to as RNA viruses that cause respiratory tract infections in birds and mammals. They have been around for a long time. Some were considered more dangerous for humans than others. But in 2019, the version known as SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, first became a problem in Wuhan, China, and then rapidly spread around the world.
Mild forms of coronavirus produce symptoms much like the common cold. Even before COVID-19, we knew that severe cases of acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) can be life-threatening.
Over the last few years, geneticists and virology specialists worldwide have been studying the human genome and the genome of COVID-19. They are working to uncover clues about how the body responds to the virus molecularly. Researchers who are part of the Personal Genome Project looked at extreme cases of the virus to identify striking differences between them.
Infectious diseases like COVID-19 infect people and replicate. They have a viral RNA genome. Genetic mutations occur during replication. This causes many different lineages of the virus, making it difficult to pinpoint aspects of the virus’s genome that make it hard to control. COVID-19 acts much like reproduction in humans (the recombination of genetic material inherited from each parent).
When a new virus is passed on, the RNA duplicates but with new mutations. This is why new variants of the virus happen — the newest one shows changes to the spike protein part of the virus’s genome. It is made up of 1,273 amino acids and 23 sugar molecules.
Studying how RNA replicates and the mutations that occur during replication can help researchers identify how the virus spreads, its lethality, and long term effects on the immune response.
It is highly important to pharmaceutical companies like Moderna and Pfizer that geneticists identify DNA information as it relates to the coronavirus. They use it to understand what combination of substances can produce antigens to strengthen the immune system to fight against exposure.
The newest variant of the virus has sparked COVID-19 vaccines to be created, including the mRNA vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization also track genomic research, as they base their public health recommendations on the evidence that comes from clinical trials.
Clinical trials are happening worldwide to collect data to analyze - including those currently suffering from the human coronavirus and those who had it and just have the antibodies for it.
Through a process of RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (PCR) researchers can make millions to billions of copies of a DNA sample for analyses. The results from the analyses are regularly being disseminated through publications such as Pubmed and the New England Journal Of Medicine (N Engl J Med).
There are two new strains that the WHO and CDC are closely monitoring, the UK Strain and the South African Strain. Both of these strains appear to be significantly more infectious than the primary strain that caued the original pandemic.
These two strains emerged due to genetic mutations in the virus’s RNA. The mutations impact the “spike protein,” which is what the virus uses to latch on to and infect human cells. Unfortunately, the mutations made the spike protein work even better than before, enabling the virus to more effectively grab hold of and infect a cell.
It is currently too early to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines against these two new strains. Studies are currently underway to determine the effectiveness of the vaccines against these strains as well as any other CoV-2 strains that may emerge.
- The UK Coronavirus Strain
- The South African Coronavirus Strain
- Technical Name: 501.V2 Variant (501.V2)
We’ll update the Sequencing Education Center as we learn more about these two new strains.
DNA holds instructions for the body. When someone comes down with an illness, how the body responds to it depends on DNA.
For instance, COVID-19 causes inflammation in some people, but not in others. Why? If the part of DNA that controls inflammation doesn’t work properly, the person will suffer from inflammation. Inflammation can cause lung damage after the virus enters through ACE2 (an enzyme) that’s found on the surface of lung cells.
Geneticists have already been able to identify gene mutations that can cause certain medical problems. This is why genetic testing for diseases is popular.
With a DNA sample, a lab can determine the genetic makeup of a person. The genetic makeup can then be analyzed to identify any diseases the person may be predisposed to. It can also help healthcare providers diagnose disease.
SARS Coronavirus CoV-2, the cause of the recent pandemic, is another disease that the power of genetic testing can be applied to. Identifying if a person has specific gene mutations can provide valuable insight into how severe the symptoms may be if the person is infected with COVID-19.
Risk factors such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and other medical concerns have an influence on the severity of the coronavirus disease. These medical conditions are genetic diseases. What is a genetic disease? Quite simply, they are diseases that can be inherited due to genes being passed down that are mutated or genes become mutated over time due to environmental factors.
Since genetic testing is available to identify the risk of diseases, it can also provide insight into how severe the virus will be for someone.
Learn More: Genetic Testing for Disease
In January 2021, 23andMe started to offer a COVD-19 Severity Calculator. This calculator analyzes a person’s genes and predicts whether a COVID infection is likely to be severe, such as requiring hospitalization.
The analysis is available only to existing customers of 23andMe who have already taken their DNA test. Unfortunately, 23andMe does not allow DNA data to be uploaded from other test providers, which means that there’s no way to upload data to 23andMe, such as data from genetic tests from AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, or Living DNA.
23andMe, however, is not the first to develop a genetic analysis that predicts the risk of COVID severity. Sequencing.com developed the original DNA analysis that predicts a person’s level of susceptibility to becoming infected as well as a person’s risk of having a more severe, potentially life-threatening COVID-19 infection.
DNA testing for coronavirus is increasing in popularity because people want to know how susceptible they are to the virus AND their chances of dying from it. While a DNA test for coronavirus cannot predict the future, it can provide information that can help people protect themselves from the life-threatening effects of the virus. Whole genome sequencing DNA tests are the best ones for providing as much information as possible about COVID risk and many other diseases.
Dr. Brandon Colby MD is a US physician specializing in the personalized prevention of disease through the use of genomic technologies. He’s an expert in genetic testing, genetic analysis, and precision medicine. Dr. Colby is also the Founder of Sequencing.com and the author of Outsmart Your Genes.
Dr. Colby holds an MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and a degree in Genetics with Honors from the University of Michigan. He is an Affiliate Specialist of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), an Associate of the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM), and a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).