Understanding why some people display no symptoms during a COVID-19 infection could lead to new precision medicine genetic tests medical labs could use to identify people with the mutated gene
New research from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) may explain why some people could get COVID-19 but never test positive on a clinical laboratory test or develop symptoms despite exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
According to the UCSF study, variations in a specific gene in a system of genes responsible for regulating the human immune system appears to be the factor in why about 10% of those who become infected with the virus are asymptomatic.
These scientific insights did not receive widespread news coverage but will be of interest to clinical laboratory managers and pathologists who oversee SARS-CoV-2 testing in their labs.
“Some people just don’t have symptoms at all,” Jill Hollenbach, PhD (above), Professor of Neurology at UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences and lead researcher in the study, told NBC News. “There’s something happening at a really fundamental level in the immune response that is helping those people to just completely wipe out this infection.” Identifying a genetic reason why some people are asymptomatic could lead to new precision medicine clinical laboratory diagnostics for COVID-19. (Photo copyright: Elena Zhukova /University of California San Francisco.)
Fortunate Gene Mutation
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID Data Tracker, as of April 5, 2023, a total of 104,242,889 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States. However, according to a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), “Traditional methods of disease surveillance do not capture all COVID-19 cases because some are asymptomatic, not diagnosed, or not reported; therefore, [knowing the true] proportion of the population with SARS-CoV-2 antibodies (i.e., seroprevalence) can improve understanding of population-level incidence of COVID-19.”
Jill Hollenbach, PhD, lead researcher in the UCSF study and Professor of Neurology at UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences, runs the Hollenbach Lab at UCSF. The lab specializes in the study of two important elements in human immune response:
- Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) genes, and
- Killer-cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs).
She also participates in the COVID-19 HLA and Immunogenetics Consortium, a group of academic researchers, clinical laboratory directors, journal editors, and others who examine the role of HLA variations in determining COVID-19 risk.
Hollenbach’s research identified an HLA variant—known as HLA-B*15:01—that causes the human immune system to react quickly to SARS-CoV-2 and “basically nuke the infection before you even start to have symptoms,” she told NPR.
“It’s definitely luck,” she added. “But, you know, this [gene] mutation is quite common. We estimate that maybe one in 10 people have it. And in people who are asymptomatic, that rises to one in five.”
The researchers published their findings on the medRxiv preprint server titled, “A Common Allele of HLA Mediates Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infection.” The UCSF study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
UCSF Study Methodology
“HLA variants are among the strongest reported associations with viral infections,” the UCSF study notes. So, the researchers theorized that HLA variations play a role in asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections as well.
To conduct their study, shortly after the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in 2020, the researchers recruited approximately 30,000 volunteer bone marrow donors from the National Marrow Donor Program to respond to periodic questions via a smartphone app or website. Because HLA variations can determine appropriate matches between donors and recipients, the database includes information about their HLA types.
Each week, respondents were asked to report if they had been tested for SARS-CoV-2. Each day, they were asked to report whether they had symptoms associated with COVID-19. “We were pretty stringent in our definition of asymptomatic,” Hollenbach told NBC News. “[The respondents couldn’t] even have a scratchy throat.”
The researchers eventually identified a cohort of 1,428 people who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 between February 2020 and April 30, 2021, before vaccines were widely available. Among these individuals, 136 reported no symptoms for two weeks before or two weeks after a positive test.
“Overall, one in five individuals (20%) who remained asymptomatic after infection carried HLA-B*15:01, compared to 9% among patients reporting symptoms,” the researchers wrote in their medRxiv preprint. Study participants with two copies of the gene were more than eight times more likely to be asymptomatic.
The UCSF researchers also looked at four other HLA variants and found none to be “significantly associated” with lack of symptoms. They confirmed their findings by reproducing the HLA-B association in two additional independent cohorts, one from an earlier study in the UK and the other consisting of San Francisco-area residents.
Individuals in the latter group had either tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 or reported COVID symptoms, and their DNA was analyzed to determine their HLA types.
Pre-existing T-Cell Immunity May Reduce Severity of COVID-19 Infection
The UCSF researchers also attempted to determine how HLA-B*15:01 plays a role in knocking out SARS-CoV-2 infections. They noted previous research that indicated previous exposure to seasonal coronaviruses, such as common cold viruses, could limit the severity of COVID-19. The scientists hypothesized that pre-existing T-cell immunity in HLA-B carriers may be the key.
The COVID-19 HLA and Immunogenetics Consortium website describes how HLA and T-cells work together to ward off disease. HLA “proteins are found on the surface of all cells except red-blood cells.” They’re “like windows into the inner workings of a cell,” and T-cells use the molecules to determine the presence of foreign proteins that are likely signs of infection. “Activated T-cells can kill infected cells, or activate B-cells, which produce antibodies in response to an infection,” the website explains.
Hollenbach’s research team analyzed T-cells from pre-pandemic individuals and observed that in more than half of HLA-B carriers, the T-cells were reactive to a SARS-CoV-2 peptide. The scientists corroborated the hypothesis by examining crystal structures of the HLA-B*15:01 molecule in the presence of coronavirus spike peptides from SARS-CoV-2 and two other human coronaviruses: OC43-CoV and HKU1-CoV.
“Altogether, our results strongly support the hypothesis that HLA-B*15:01 mediates asymptomatic COVID-19 disease via pre-existing T-cell immunity due to previous exposure to HKU1-CoV and OC43-CoV,” the researchers wrote.
Can Genes Prevent COVID-19 Infections?
Meanwhile, researchers at The Rockefeller University in New York City are attempting to go further and see if there are mutations that prevent people from getting infected in the first place. NPR reported that they were seeking participants for a study seeking to identify so-called “superdodger” genes.
“You fill out a questionnaire online about your exposures to SARS-CoV-2,” explained Jean-Laurent Casanova, MD, PhD, professor, senior attending physician, and head of the St. Giles Laboratory of Human Genetics of Infectious Diseases at The Rockefeller University, who is leading the study.
Study participants identified as possibly having superdodger genes receive a kit designed to collect saliva samples, after which the researchers sequence the respondents’ genomes. “We hope that in a group of 2,000 to 4,000 people, some people will have genetic mutations that tell us why they’re resistant to infection,” Casanova told NPR.
All this genetic research is in very early stages. But results are promising and may lead to new precision medicine clinical laboratory tests for identifying people who are predisposed to having an asymptomatic response to COVID-19 infection. That in turn could help scientists learn how to moderate or even eliminate symptoms in those unfortunate people who suffer the typical symptoms of the disease.
A Common Allele of HLA Mediates Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infection
What People with ‘Super Immunity’ Can Teach Us about COVID and Other Viruses
So, You Haven’t Caught COVID Yet. Does That Mean You’re a Superdodger?
If You Haven’t Gotten COVID Yet, This Might Be Why
Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory
UC San Francisco Researchers Discover Why Some People Are Asymptomatic When Infected with COVID-19
Seroprevalence of Infection-Induced SARS-CoV-2 Antibodies—United States, September 2021–February 2022