You know that file you got from Ancestry or 23andMe that contains a digital copy of your entire genetic code? Imagine that you upload it to a site, and five minutes later it spits out a report. Bad news — it says your risk from the coronavirus is a glaring red "HIGHER," meaning that according to a potpourri of genetic markers, you're more likely to have a severe, potentially deadly case of COVID-19.
That's the idea behind a free genetic analysis offered by Sequencing.com, a genetic testing company that's offering personalized, DNA-based coronavirus warnings.
"A person who looks to be low risk on a non-genetic level or seems like they could be pretty okay if they get COVID-19, we know that their genes are putting them on the path to a more severe disease," Sequencing CEO and clinical geneticist Brandon Colby told Futurism.
One of the major challenges of the coronavirus pandemic has been identifying who's at a greater risk for a disease that remains difficult to treat. At first, the outbreak seemed to be most dangerous for the elderly or people with underlying health conditions. But over time, more reports emerged of younger, healthier people coming down with severe — and sometimes fatal — cases.
Colby's goal is to personalize coronavirus testing by providing reports catered specifically to a individual's genetic code. With that, the screenings could bring to light warnings signs that might have previously flown under the radar for patients who otherwise seem healthy.
Colby told Futurism that he hopes the reports will convince people with high genetic risk factors to exercise greater caution. And if they do start to feel sick, he says, the report could spur them to seek treatment immediately.
"That person may have genes that put them at high risk, and that's really the power of this report," Colby told Futurism. "Without this report, that would have been a major question."
While clinical trials about how to best treat COVID-19 are only beginning to emerge, geneticists have already learned much about the structure, genetic code, and biological mechanisms of the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2. Colby and his team used that research to develop their predictive reports.
Because SARS-CoV-2 is so genetically similar to SARS-CoV-1, the coronavirus that causes SARS, the Sequencing team also pulled from the far more expansive body of research on that virus as well, since the same genes seem to be linked to a greater risk of infection and more severe symptoms of both diseases.
"This research is still preliminary and this analysis is based on preliminary genetic associations," Colby said. "If the pandemic was not such a crisis, then this would be something that we would want more research to come out upon. We would probably put this up there in a beta format, and that would be very clear."
"But due to the crisis, the urgency, we are utilizing these preliminary studies and making sure that people understand that these are preliminary," he added. "We're utilizing what information we currently have available to make it useful at a time when it's needed."
Supplementing their research with existing studies on the SARS virus may make for a more robust tool, but genetic experts weren't entirely convinced by the idea of an online genetic test for COVID risk.
"Genetics rarely gives you a 100 percent foolproof predictive ability," Dasgupta added.
"Certainly, comparative genomics can give insight from how genes work in other systems, but since viruses evolve quickly, it’s possible that those components may work together slightly differently in the novel coronavirus," Dasgupta added.
Because genes can't possibly tell the whole story, Sequencing's report also weighs non-genetic risk factors, like age, smoking habits, and existing medical conditions, which Dasgupta described as "a good start." Colby told Futurism that even more environmental factors, like stress, will be included in a major update to the reports expected to go live on Friday.
Colby said that his team will add new findings as they encounter them, making the reports more accurate and robust. Anyone who got a genetic profile from Sequencing might get a notification in the future that their report has changed as new research comes in, especially after that new update.
Even with the knowledge that these reports are based on preliminary findings and could change just as the pandemic continues to change and surprise us, Colby hopes that the personalized reports and warnings will inspire people to better protect themselves.
"If you don't know that you're at very high risk, you think, 'Hey I'm 30 years old, I don’t have any health problems, I don't smoke, I'm gonna go shopping today. I'm gonna go outside and potentially expose myself,' that decision may be altered once you go and see these reports," Colby said.