Can Your Ethnicity Determine Your Risk of Getting Severe COVID-19?

2 min read

While a large majority of people who catch COVID-19 recover with minimal medical intervention, some people end up developing serious complications and end up needing hospitalisation.

Recent studies have tried to look at the correlation between COVID severity and the genes of the patient, and there might be some substantial clues to back that up.

During the second wave of COVID-19, it was noticed that people hailing from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds were more prone to die from the severity of the virus compared to white European regions, reported the Guardian.

Is It in Your Genes?

According to the report, more deaths were noticed among the South-Asians compared to the Europeans. The stark difference pushed policymakers to delve deeper into the reason as to what caused this.

After doing extensive research and studies, it was found that a particular gene—the cells situated in the lining of the lungs respond differently to the virus in this gene—was behind this disparity in severity between the ethnicities.

The gene is known as LZTFL1, and was found to double the possibility of lung failure and deaths in COVID-19 patients. This is why it is considered severe and risky.

People carrying the low-risk gene were concluded to be at lower risk of needing hospitalisation, and suffered less complications.

A research conducted by the University of Oxford found that the higher-risky gene was present in almost 60 percent of South Asians and 15 percent of Europeans.

Higher rate of COVID related hospitalisation and deaths were witnessed in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh because of this gene. The Black African people, who suffered from the severity of the virus in the first wave, were found to be able to combat it better in the second wave.

The study's results offer, at least a partial, understanding of why some people are more prone to severe COVID-19 complications, and even death.

However, studies such as these must be looked at with caution.

Limitations of the Gene Theory

It is imperative that we look at studies such as this through a lens of caution for multiple reasons.

For one, data such as this can be hard to verify without more extensive genetic study of COVID patients which is hampered by the fact that ethnic minorities are poorly represented in existing genetic databases, reported the Guardian.

Secondly, the higher risk among people of African and Asian continents could be just as well explained by the difference in their socio-economic conditions.

Beyond the Genes

The risky gene is not the only factor that has led to death and hospitalisation in South-Asian countries.

A report by the UK Office for National Statistics has held socio-economic conditions responsible for higher COVID related fatalities in these countries.

Other factors that likely contribute to higher rate of severe illness among south Asians may include,

  • Exposure to the infection at the workplace

  • High exposure among young children

  • Packed households with multiple family members

  • Low vaccine coverage

If the genetics are supported by substantial scientific evidence, however, it could help model vaccine distribution policies more efficiently by prioritising the more vulnerable communities.

(Written with inputs from The Guardian.)

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