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Individual Genetic Variation in Immune System Genes (HLA) May Affect Differences in Severity of COVID-19 Infection and Susceptibility

Genetic variability in the human immune system may affect susceptibility to, and severity of infection by, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus responsible for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The research was published online on April 17, 2020 in the Journal of Virology, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology. The open-access article is titled “Human Leukocyte Antigen Susceptibility Map for SARS-CoV-2.” Individual genetic variation may explain differences in the strength of immune responses. Certain immune system genes, called human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes that are involved in recognizing pathogens, vary from person to person. Variations can influence how well the immune system recognizes a given pathogen. Poor recognition of SARS-CoV-2 could cause a person to be more vulnerable to the virus. "In particular, understanding how variation in HLA [a component of the immune system containing multiple genes] may affect the course of COVID-19 could help identify individuals at higher risk from the disease," according to the authors of the new study, who are from Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon, and the Portland VA Research Foundation. The first author is PhD candidate Austin Nguyen, and the senior author is Reid F. Thompson, MD, PhD, both from the Oregon Health & Science University. The authors show that individual HLA, haplotype, and full genotype variability likely influence the capacity to respond to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and note that certain alleles in particular could be associated with more severe infection, as has previously been shown with SARS-CoV (the SARS virus). "This is the first study to report global distributions of HLA types and haplotypes with potential epidemiological ramifications in the setting of the current pandemic," write the authors. "HLA typing can be fast and inexpensive," the authors write. "Pairing HLA typing with COVID-19 testing, where feasible, could improve assessment of viral severity in the population. Following the development of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, individuals with high-risk HLA types could be prioritized for vaccination."

[Press release] [Journal of Virology article]