The danger of blaming Covid-19 deaths on our genes


A profound and unexpected disparity in Covid-19 death rates has emerged among different countries. In South Korea, Norway and Australia, for example, less than 3% of confirmed cases die, while in Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom, the case fatality rate is as high as 14%.

Might the same gene be related to both clinical conditions? The researchers' findings support the idea that there is some correlation, although the study -- which found only 37 patients with the APOE4 variation -- is only a preliminary observation and will require more research before any cause-and-effect can be established.

This is one of the first of many observations we should expect as scientists comb the human genome for hints as to why rates of severe disease and death vary so greatly across the world -- even among countries with seemingly similar healthcare quality and availability. Another study, which hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, found that blood type A, which, like all blood types, is genetically determined, was associated with a higher risk of respiratory failure in patients with Covid-19.

The influx of geneticists studying Covid-19 is good news; brilliant minds that examine a problem from different perspectives is our most likely way forward.

But it also highlights a new set of concerns. Finding a gene is one thing; whether that gene determines an incontrovertible cause for Covid-19 mortality is something else. A genetic predisposition can easily be mistaken as a death sentence, but in many cases, luck, exercise, and a good diet can still play a role in reducing the risk of disease. Despite this, it's easy to imagine that the emphasis on genetics could take the heat off political leaders like President Donald Trump or Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, who have downplayed their responsibilities during this crisis. How convenient it would be for them to be able to suggest that a disastrously managed, highly lethal pandemic outbreak was actually nothing more than the result of the wrong genes in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Furthermore, blaming people's genetic makeup could quickly knee-cap necessary fixes to our healthcare system and any soul-searching or examination of how things might have been done better. With this and most other healthcare calamities, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our genes, but in ourselves -- or at least in the society we have created.

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