Researchers at the University of Oxford have identified a gene that has the potential to double the risk of lung failure and death due to COVID-19 among those of South Asian origin.
They said around 60 percent of people from South Asian backgrounds and 15 percent of people of European ancestry carry the high-risk version of the gene.
The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics has found that the gene, LZTFL1, may explain why people of South Asian descent are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The researchers found that the higher risk version of the gene probably prevents the cells lining airways and the lungs from responding to the virus properly.
They said that the genetic signal doubled the risk of dying from COVID-19 in adults under the age of 65 years.
The study also found that 2 percent of people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry carried the higher risk genotype.
The authors cautioned that the gene cannot be used as a sole explanation as many other factors, such as socioeconomic conditions, play a role.
"The higher risk DNA code is found more commonly in some black and minority ethnic communities but not in others. Socioeconomic factors are also likely to be important in explaining why some communities have been particularly badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic," Study co-lead Professor James Davies, said.
But importantly, the high-risk version of the gene, doesn’t affect the immune system, so the researchers expect people carrying this version to respond normally to vaccines.
"Although we cannot change our genetics, our results show that the people with the higher risk gene are likely to particularly benefit from vaccination. Since the genetic signal affects the lung rather than the immune system it means that the increased risk should be cancelled out by the vaccine," Professor Davies explained.
The researchers are also hopeful that drugs and other therapies could target the pathway preventing the lung lining from transforming to less specialised cells, raising the possibility of new treatments customized for those most likely to develop severe symptoms.