coronavirus illinois

‘Never COVID Cohort:' Chicago's Top Doc on Whether Genetics Can Help Guard Against Serious Illness

NBC Universal, Inc.

The question of how some individuals seem to avoid contracting COVID-19 better than others has fascinated scientists throughout the pandemic, and Chicago’s top doctor cited a growing body of research that suggests there could be a variety factors at play when it comes to determining who gets sick with the virus and who doesn’t.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, addressed the research that has been going on at a variety of levels to determine whether differences in immune systems and genetics can potentially offer more, or less, protection against COVID in different populations.

While she said that the idea of a “never COVID cohort” isn’t exactly accurate, preferring instead to focus on the idea that some individuals could have more resistance to serious illness, she said that there are plenty of factors being researched on that front.

“We’ve learned a lot about immunity, and there’s a lot we don’t know,” she said during a Thursday question-and-answer session. “Some of the most interesting basic science research (surround) four or five different hypotheses that you can measure in someone’s blood that can tell you that this person is at higher risk of having a more severe outcome from COVID.”

A recent study from Imperial College London suggested that individuals with higher levels of T-cells (a type of cell in the immune system) from common cold coronaviruses were less likely to become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, according to an article by CNBC.

“We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Rhia Kundu, one of the authors of the study, said.  

Kundu did say that it was only one type of protection, and that getting vaccines is “the best way” to protect oneself from COVID.

In addition to protection afforded by immunity to other types of coronaviruses, Arwady alluded to research that is being done on the connection between genetics and the virus.

“Are there some things in people’s genetic makeup that keep them from getting sick? It’s an amazing clue if you can identify someone who doesn’t seem to get infected with the disease,” she said.

Pfizer on Tuesday asked U.S. regulators to authorize extra-low doses of its COVID-19 vaccine for children under age 5.

Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told CNBC that he and his colleagues are soon to publish research on immunogenetics (the relationship between genetics and the immune system) and COVID-19 infection.

According to CNBC, the study “found that variations between people’s immune systems ‘makes a difference, at least to whether or not you get symptomatic disease.”

The research focused on human leukocyte antigens (HLA), and looking into how those impact one’s response to COVID. The research found that some types of HLA’s may be more or less likely to experience a symptomatic or asymptomatic COVID infection.

While Arwady expressed excitement about the research, she said that her focus remains on determining risk-factors, and helping those individuals who have them.

She specifically mentioned diabetes as a condition that “seems to independently predict severe outcomes for COVID,” and said that age, vaccination status, no prior exposure to COVID and underlying health conditions could all play a role in making individuals susceptible to infection.

She repeated her encouragement for residents to get vaccinated and boosted against the virus, citing research that suggested that such measures are effective in preventing serious illness or death.

Contact Us