Tuesday, April 7, 2020

COVID-19 update

A dying man, stoned on suspicion of spreading the plague - Felix Jenewein, 1899 (Wikicommons)

SARS-CoV-2, though novel, belongs to a long-existing group of respiratory pathogens: coronaviruses. Until the first appearance of SARS in 2002, these pathogens did little harm to their hosts, usually causing nothing worse than a common cold. So they may have coevolved with us. Furthermore, this coevolution may have taken different forms in different human populations and different cultural environments.

Coronaviruses infect lung tissue via a receptor, ACE2, that varies structurally not only between Asians and other human groups but also between different Asian groups. In particular, the Chinese population has fewer alleles that code for weak binding to the coronavirus S-protein (Cao et al. 2020). Different ACE2 alleles are also associated with differences in susceptibility to diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease with a distinct global pattern of prevalence: 22% in Italy, 23% in China, 30% in the United Kingdom, and 40% in the United States (Adams 2020).

This geographic pattern doesn’t exist because some populations have become more resistant to coronaviruses. Instead, the reverse seems to have happened: some populations have become more susceptible to coronavirus infection, perhaps as a means to prevent more serious pulmonary infections, like tuberculosis and pneumonic plague (Shekhar et al. 2017). Such an effect has been shown with γherpesvirus 68 and cytomegalovirus (Barton et al. 2007; Miller et al. 2019). This crude vaccination boosts the immune response through increased production of IFN-γ and increased activation of macrophages.

Historically, tuberculosis was especially common in crowded environments, where people lived in proximity not only to each other but also to domesticated animals (Comas et al. 2013). Such environments have existed continuously for the longest time in China, as well as in areas like the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the Fertile Crescent, and the Mediterranean Basin. Those areas are where people should be most susceptible to coronavirus infection.

This may explain why COVID-19 has been more severe in southern Europe than in northern Europe. It is surprising that infection tends to become less severe with latitude when one would expect the opposite: respiratory viruses spread more effectively under conditions of lower temperature, lower humidity, and lower solar UV.

Ongoing research?

These geographic differences have caught the interest of a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Hawai'i, Maarit Tiirikainen:

"There have been major differences in the rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection and the severe disease between the different geographic regions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even among young individuals," Dr. Tiirikainen said. "Epidemiological studies-so-called Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS)-indicate that populations carry different variants of the ACE2 gene. This variation in the gene coding for the ACE2 receptor may have an effect on the number of ACE2 receptors on the lung cells, as well as on how effectively the virus binds to the receptor. There may also be genetic differences in immune and other important genes explaining why some people get more sick than others."

She is collaborating with a genomics company, LifeDNA, in a study that will initially focus on Hawai'i's multiethnic inhabitants, specifically their diversity of ACE2 alleles in relation to the latest coronavirus (LifeDNA 2020 – h/t to Steve Sailer).

Parting thoughts

All humans can get infected by coronaviruses, but the infection tends to vary in severity from one population to another. This variance may reflect differences in genetic adaptation in different cultural environments.

Of course, adaptation may also be cultural. Because natural selection acts on the end result, and not on the means to that end, the means may be a purely learned algorithm, like adding spices to food or avoiding physical contact with strangers. One might not have understood why or how such practices worked, but they did work and would be passed on to subsequent generations, thus becoming the traditional way of doing things. Today, we’re likely to reject such practices as outmoded superstitions.

So be modern. Hug a stranger.


Adams N. (2020). Cracking the code to the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19): Lessons from the eye. Eye Reports 6(1). 

Barton E.S., White D.W., Cathelyn J.S., Brett-McClellan K.A., Engle M., Diamond M.S., et al. (2007). Herpesvirus latency confers symbiotic protection from bacterial infection. Nature 447: 326-329. 

Cao Y., Li L., Feng Z., Wan S., Huang P., Sun X., et al. (2020). Comparative genetic analysis of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV/SARS-CoV-2) receptor ACE2 in different populations. Cell Discovery 6(11). 

Comas I., Coscolla M., Luo T., Borrell S., Holt K.E., Kato-Maeda M., et al. (2013). Out-of-Africa migration and Neolithic coexpansion of Mycobacterium tuberculosis with modern humans. Nature Genetics 45(10): 1176-1182.

LifeDNA (2020). COVID-19: LifeDNA and University of Hawai’i Collaborate on Studying Why Certain Populations Are Hit Harder. Research focuses on ACE2 receptor, probing the role of genetics in both susceptibility to infection and severity of response April 2, University of Hawai'i Cancer Center 

Miller H.E., Johnson K.E., Tarakanova V.L., Robinson R.T. (2019). γ-herpesvirus latency attenuates Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection in mice. Tuberculosis 116: 56-60. 

Shekhar S., Schenck K., Petersen F.C. (2017). Exploring host-commensal interactions in the respiratory tract. Frontiers in Immunology 8: 1971. 


Truth Seeker said...

Good essay. It does seem that in the United States, Italian-Americans are particularly hard hit. Almost an entire family of Italian ancestry in New Jersey died. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/nyregion/new-jersey-family-coronavirus.html Peter, so will the Coronavirus impede the New Age liberalism/globalism?

Sean said...


Peter Frost said...


It will be a blessing in disguise for several reasons:
- People are realizing that the COVID-19 crisis would have been a lot less severe if border controls had been promptly introduced back in January.
- They are also realizing that long supply chains to a single source (China) have made the global economy much too vulnerable.
- Our elites have revealed their Achilles heel. Throughout the West we are ruled by a gerontocracy that is terrified of death. If this crisis drags on, as it likely will, it will become much easier to criticize globalism.


Excellent! I wish I had seen that video earlier.

Santo said...

We really don't know the validity of chinese data... chinese government is still avoid to take the responsibility for early spreading of new coronavirus;

People who are essential workers are highly exposed to take the virus

People who are essential workers are often blacks or nonwhitey; with lots of accumulated health problems due capitalism perversities like obesity--induced--profits-for- specially in places like Britain and USA. It's increase the likelihood to die from this chinaese disease

In Italy, the virus has circulating earlier and severely affected high risk people resulting in escalating death tolls also because a lot of reasons: high demographic density, high pollution levels on northern, combined with a lowland sorrounded by two mountain chains, the winter, has rightwingidiots as current government, Cultural practices (kisses and hugs/ several generations dividing the same house/partment) and tourism.

Alll these factors reduce a lot your centric genetic theory to explain why some groups are more vulnerable than others.