A Mail Online report has questioned whether DNA could be “driving the rise of young adults dying of coronavirus”. They suggest that some “genetic ‘errors’” could “make some people with no underlying conditions vulnerable to the virus”.

Despite the scary headline, deaths from COVID-19 in younger adults are uncommon. They are particularly rare among those who have no underlying health conditions, but there have been cases. Researchers from the Rockefeller University in the US are collecting DNA from these rare individuals to investigate whether specific genetic mutations could explain why they were susceptible.

As yet this research is not complete and could take many months. While only a few people might have a specific genetic cause for their susceptibility, studies such as this help us to understand how our bodies respond to COVID-19. In the long run, it is hoped that this understanding will help us work out ways to protect or treat people with COVID-19.

Where did the story come from?

The Mail Online is amongst the media outlets to have published an article reporting that there may be a link between healthy young people getting severely ill and dying of coronavirus and their DNA. It reports CDC data that suggests that nearly 40% of hospitalized coronavirus patients are young or middle-aged adults.

 

What is the basis for the claim?

The Mail’s headline talks about a “rise in young adults dying of coronavirus” but their article doesn’t actually give any figures on deaths in young adults.

The CDC report they appear to be quoting gives rates of hospitalisation, admission to intensive care, and deaths among different age groups in the US from February 12th to March 16th.

In these data, it is clear that older adults fare worse than younger ones. Those aged 65 and over accounted for only around a third of cases (31%) but around 80% of deaths. The rate of death among adults aged 20-54 years with COVID-19 was less than 1% but increased with age to between 10% and 27% in those aged 85 years and over. Many younger adults who die will have had underlying health conditions.

However, as the Mail Online points out, there are rare cases where younger adults have been severely ill with COVID-19 despite not having any underlying conditions. In these rare and unexplained cases, researchers from the Rockefeller University want to look at whether the individuals carry specific genetic mutations that might explain why they got so sick.

The team led by Professor Jean-Laurent Casanova study what they call “inborn errors of immunity”, which are the genetic variations that affect a person’s ability to fight off a specific infection. They have previously identified genetic changes that make people susceptible to severe complications of influenza for example.

They are now working with international colleagues to collect and analyse DNA from previously healthy young adults who have been severely affected by COVID-19. The consortium is also looking for genetic variations which might protect people from COVID-19.

 

What do trusted sources say?

As yet we don’t have the answers about how a person’s DNA might influence their susceptibility to coronavirus, and how severely they are affected if they do catch it. However, it is plausible that there is a link, and many international groups are coming together to study the possibility in the hope that it will help us to defeat the disease.

For example, the UK Biobank is a project which recruited 500,000 people aged between 40-69 years from across the UK between 2006 and 2010. They are planning to collect additional data on coronavirus infections among these participants and make it available to study by experts.

Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser

 

Citation

  1. The Mail Online. Is DNA responsible for the rise of young adults dying of coronavirus? Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-8202047/Some-young-people-fall-severely-ill-coronavirus-DNA.html Accessed 11 May 2020.

Reading list

  1. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm?s_cid=mm6912e2_w Accessed 11 May 2020.
  2. The Rockefeller University. Science for the benefit of humanity. Available at: https://www.rockefeller.edu/our-scientists/heads-of-laboratories/970-jean-laurent-casanova/ Accessed 11 May 2020.
  3. The Scientist. DNA could hold clues to varying severity of COVID-19. Available at: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/dna-could-hold-clues-to-varying-severity-of-covid-19-67435 Accessed May 2020.