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Wash U part of global study looking for genetic clues to why COVID-19 is worse for some

Some young, healthy people are getting very sick with COVID-19. Washington University researchers are going to look at their genes to try to find out why
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DNA

ST. LOUIS — Washington University will be part of a genetic study searching for answers to one of the mysteries surrounding COVID-19: why some young people with no underlying medical conditions develop severe symptoms.

To search for those answers, Washington University and more than 30 other genome sequencing hubs around the world will search for genetic defects that could put people at high risk.

The McDonnell Genome Institute at the Washington University School of Medicine will participate in the COVID Human Genetic Effort, an international project co-led by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Rockefeller University.

"We sometimes see stories about, say, a marathon runner or a generally fit, healthy person who nevertheless got very sick from this virus, or the few healthy children who are getting very sick with COVID-19. These are the kinds of patients we’re interested in for this study. A small proportion of hospitalized patients will fit this category, likely less than 10%,” said rheumatologist Megan A. Cooper. 

Cooper also leads the clinical immunology program and the Jeffrey Modell Diagnostic and Research Center for Primary Immunodeficiencies at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

The project also plans to study people who never become ill with the new coronavirus despite repeated exposures.

If researchers can identify genetic mutations that result in unusual susceptibility to or resistance from COVID-19, it could lead to new treatment strategies.

“We can foresee a future ability to do a genetic sequencing test for individual patients hospitalized with SARS-CoV-2 and get an idea of whether they are likely to need more intensive care," Cooper said. "In the meantime, we will be able to learn a great deal about how the immune system responds to this virus and what it needs to be able to respond effectively and in an appropriate manner.”

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