in a race against Covid-19, 23andMe launched an ambitious study to answer a question on everyone’s minds: who’s likely to get sick, or to get very sick? And being 23andMe, they hunted for a genetic factor. But it’s how 23andMe got to them that’s mind-blowing. Ancestry, 23andMe’s competitor, similarly launched a research study on the genetics of Covid-19, with hundreds of thousands of people participating in the first two weeks.
What Did They Do?
23andMe certainly has a massive database. In April 2020, as Covid-19 began sweeping over the country, the 23andMe team followed the geographical flow of the virus to geo-target customers to recruit them into their Covid-19 study. Overall, about 1.05 million 23andMe customers responded to the study, with over 15,000 people who reported having been diagnosed with Covid-19, and 1,100 people hospitalized with the disease.
A Blood Type Link
Armed with millions of data points, the team asked if gene variants could change how easily a person gets infected with Covid-19, and how severely the disease progresses. The analysis showed that the ABO gene strongly linked to the possibility that someone would test negative for Covid-19. A person’s blood type is determined by variations in a single gene. For example, one specific genetic type makes a person naturally immune to HIV-1 and AIDS.
It’s reasonable to hypothesize that certain genetic types could be more or less susceptible to a new virus, too. 23andMe’s finding confirmed earlier work that suggested a blood type vulnerability to the disease. Back in June 2020, Dr. Tom Hemming Karlsen at Oslo University Hospital also found a protective effect of O blood types, but with a much smaller sample, and only with people from Italy and Spain. “They clarify further what our data could only vaguely hint at,” he said.
The team relied on a big data analysis technique called GWAS, or genome-wide association studies. It’s a highly popular way to analyze genetics and hunt down parts of our DNA chains that are associated with a particular disease.
GWAS studies are often performed on people of European ancestry, and it’s still up in the air whether those results can be extrapolated to other populations, such as those of African or Asian descent. Blood type popped up in every ethnic group, hinting at an especially powerful genetic link regardless of background that scientists still need to understand. In addition, the team also looked at non-genetic risk factors for Covid-19, including gender, socioeconomic status, and obesity.
A New GWAS Future
This isn’t the first time 23andMe makes waves in research. Using a similar model of online surveys, the company has ventured into research on Parkinson’s disease, sleep, and breast cancer, to name a few. Consumer genetic companies are also partnering with academic institutions to share their datasets and methods to mine for new insights into how genetic differences contribute to health and disease. “I applaud the consumer groups that are turning some of their resources to working on this, and everything will be valuable,” said Dr. Robert Green, a medical geneticist at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to STAT in an earlier interview.
In the “data is power” age, consumer genetic companies are paving a new research road. For now, 23andMe is catching up to the pandemic. The blood link to Covid-19 susceptibility is intriguing, but doesn’t change treatments.