Older people and those with underlying conditions are at greatest risk of dying of coronavirus – but otherwise healthy young people are getting severely ill and even dying of the disease.
And the ill fates of these young coronavirus patients may be written into their DNA, some scientists suspect.
Some 80 percent of people who die of coronavirus are 65 or older – but data published by the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) last month revealed that nearly 40 percent of hospitalized coronavirus patients are young or middle-aged adults.
Dr Jean-Laurent Casanova of Rockefeller University thinks that these rare, young patients who fall so desperately, seemingly at random, may have invisible risk factors, called ‘inborn errors of immunity.’
He and his international team of collaborators are recruiting coronavirus patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s whose illnesses are life-threatening and plan to sequence and test their genetics, looking for a piece of code that makes them more vulnerable.
Scientists suspect that the reason that some otherwise healthy, young adults are dying of coronavirus (pictured) may be in their DNA – and now they’re trying to study it
In addition to obvious traits like our hair and eye color, our DNA also contains instructions for our bodies to build everything from brain cells and bones to the core of our immune system.
Chronic health conditions like heart and lung diseases and diabetes impact the immune system too, diminishing our natural ability to fight off infection.
Some people are born immunodeficient due to genetic conditions or variations.
But Dr Casanova is one of the scientists at the forefront of the discovery that genetics may also make some people susceptible to specific infections, not unlike the BRCA genes’ effects on risks for certain malignant tumors, particularly breast cancer.
‘Some people have genetic variations that make them selectively vulnerable to that particularly virus that are silent until the moment that the patient is hit by this specific virus,’ Dr Casanova explained in a Skype interview with DailyMail.com.
It’s a phenomenon he and his team saw in a toddler who was deathly ill with flu. it turned out that the child had a variant of a gene that codes for an element of the immune system that acts like an alarm system to the rest.
Conrad Buchanan (left) was just 39 and had no underlying health conditions, but he died of coronavirus last month, leaving behind his wife, Nicole (right)
Due to this anomaly of his DNA, his body didn’t get the message that flu had invaded his cells, so it didn’t mount the proper attack.
They’ve also seen this pattern in people who are more vulnerable to tuberculosis. These patients were deficient in signalling cells called interferon – and there’s already a pharmaceutical substitute to replace these, meaning the discovery could lead to prevention or treatment for these patients.
Now, Dr Casanova and his team are turning their focus to COVID-19.
Rockefeller, like the vast majority of businesses and institutions in the US, has shut down all operations except those related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Jean-Laurent Casanova of Rockefeller University found ‘inborn errors of immunity’ that make some young people get life-threatening illness from the flu. Now he’s investigating if the same is true of young COVID-19 patients
So Dr Casanova is down to a team of about eight.
But they’ve already begun collecting patients from around the world – most of them are in the US and France – to study.
‘We’re recruiting patients, the relatively rare ones with unexplained, severe disease’ Dr Casanova said.
Once they have those patients – they’ve already recruited somewhere between 10 and 20 in the US – who have ‘life-threatening illness,’ meaning they need oxygen support, Dr Casanova and his team can start sequencing their genes and looking for candidate variations.
These are genes that ‘look promising that they might be causal for disease,’ Dr Casanova says.
And if they find these genes, they might also find other patterns of commonality between these patients.
While his and other labs have looked at inborn immunity errors for viruses like flu, and bacterial infections like tuberculosis, to Dr Casnova’s knowledge, no one has ever studies genetic variations that make some people’s immune systems weak against any coronavirus, including those that cause common colds, SARS or MERS.
‘If we crack at least some genetic cases, hypothetically [it could hold clues for patterns] of severe COVID in non-genetic patients,’ says Dr Casanova.
‘Perhaps for different reasons, the same mechanism of immunity might be disrupted in older patients.’
Such a discovery would be a major breakthrough, but it won’t be an immediate one.
‘It would be in the coming year, not the coming months,’ Dr Casanova said.