Sequencing DNA from patients infected and recovered with coronavirus could save lives


DIPLOIDE GENETICS and CRMEDICINE have started sequencing the genomes of patients with coronavirus. We looked for DNA differences between patients who are severely affected and those with mild symptoms. This could allow us to predict who else would be vulnerable and advise them to take precautions. We may be able to use this knowledge against the coronavirus epidemic before a vaccine becomes widely available.

In particular, it would be valuable to know if the key DNA variations are shared by those rare people who are young and appear healthy but have developed severe symptoms of the coronavirus. We may be able to predict which doctors and nurses are most at risk and remove them from the front line.

Of course, we still don't know if accurate predictions will be possible. We don't even know if the chances of someone having severe coronavirus symptoms are affected by their genes. However, we could answer these questions relatively cheaply and quickly using common DNA sequencing technology.

We aim to sequence the entire genomes of coronavirus victims who need intensive care and compare them to the genomes of people who have only mild symptoms. With only a few thousand genomes in each category, we could quickly discover if there is a mileage on this approach.

It may be that only one or two genes are involved. Perhaps broken genes involved in the immune system or the surfaces of lung cells. If so, we could quickly discover them using a method called genome-wide association study. If only a couple of broken genes make a difference, a genetic test for coronavirus susceptibility could be simple, cheap, and accurate.

It may be that there are thousands of genes involved. Perhaps a complex combination of genes involved in lung physiology, the shape of the upper respiratory tract, and many other things we have never thought of. If this is the case, solving exactly what is happening could take decades. But we need answers in weeks or months.