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Podcast Review: COVID In Your Genes – The risk factors

17 May 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1095

Genomic sequencing has numerous applications, including determining genealogy, the presence or absence of common mutations in a couple who are considering becoming pregnant, and even the susceptibility of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus which leads to COVID-19, and the severity of the subsequent disease.

The latter was the focus of a lively discussion in the 'Naked Scientists' podcast series titled 'COVID In Your Genes – The risk factors'. The discussion took place between Phil Sansom, the presenter, and Dr Nathaniel Pearson of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative and New York Genome Centre.

The 30-minute-long podcast discussed genetic findings relating to the risk of catching and developing severe COVID-19. I am an avid listener of science-based podcasts, and I did enjoy listening to the conversation between Sansom and Dr Pearson.

What rather surprised me, however, was that the study which was the focus of the podcast is unpublished, and at the time of the podcast not peer-reviewed. The results were published on the medRxiv pre-print server. In my opinion, it would have been appropriate for the podcast to provide a more detailed explanation for lay listeners about the peer review process and how it could somewhat modify the study's conclusions. The peer review process can also take a number of months, delaying the actual publication of the paper.

The language used throughout the podcast was basic, which would enable all listeners to remain engaged. As a whole, Sansom asked appropriate questions to garner information that would be of interest to the listeners. However, a couple of questions were a little extreme. For example, Sansom asked about the potential of human DNA manipulation, followed by deliberate COVID-19 infection, which Dr Pearson was quick to answer and provide clarifications to avoid controversy. He very clearly stated that there was no intention of manipulating people's DNA, and that any experiments would take place in laboratory cells.

As the senior director of scientific engagement and public outreach of the New York Genome Centre, Dr Pearson was a talented and confident speaker, able to explain biological and genetic terminology by using visual analogies and architectural metaphors, which were both entertaining and educational.

Even though the study isn't peer-reviewed, I found the results fascinating. The collaborating scientists analysed DNA from millions of volunteers who had previously contracted COVID-19. Various genes were identified that could be indicative of an individual's risk of not only contracting SARS-CoV-2, but also the risks involved of developing severe COVID-19, which could potentially lead to hospitalisation.

Another visual architectural metaphor used by Dr Pearson, was that parts of chromosomes 3, 9, 12 and 21 were taller and shorter 'buildings' in the Manhattan or Dubai skyline. With gene variants regulating cellular ion flow (SLC6A20), different blood types (ABO) and interferon receptors (IFNAR2) determined as possible culprits.

The genomic links to severe COVID-19 susceptibility were also discussed during the Progress Educational Trust (PET) annual conference in late 2020 (see BioNews 1077). Drs Moalem and Zhang gave two excellent talks and presented their findings to explain why men were more prone to develop severe COVID-19 in comparison to women. Specific gene variants were also identified that increased this risk.

Both the PET annual conference and the 'Naked Scientist' podcast discussed variants in interferon-related genes, which appear to increase susceptibility of an individual to require hospitalisation due to COVID-19. I was particularly interested to discover how our genetic makeup controls the way that viruses affect us, in particular the relationship between Neanderthal DNA and susceptibility to COVID-19. BioNews has reported both an increased and decreased risk for severe COVID-19 (see BioNews 1066 and 1084 respectively).

Towards the end of the podcast the conversation discusses the potential development of personalised COVID-19 treatments based on an individual's genetics, and possible modifications on the vaccination programme prioritisation. I found this a smart way to put the importance of the genetic data into context for all listeners, especially as we have already started hearing about booster vaccines coming during autumn and the population groups who may receive them. Both Sansom and Dr Pearson concluded that it was too early to say how important an individual's genome will be to their susceptibility to contract SARS-CoV-2 or develop severe COVID-19. I agree with them.

Overall, I found this podcast enjoyable, entertaining, and educational and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the potential genetic implications of COVID-19. Personally, I am looking forward to reading the paper - after it has been peer-reviewed and published.

COVID In Your Genes: The Risk Factors
The Naked Scientists |  14 April 2021
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