Irish team part of global effort to solve genetic Covid-19 mystery

18 Oct 2021

Image: © Mauro Rodrigues/

An international group of scientists, including a team from Trinity College Dublin, are studying why some people may be innately resistant to the virus.

A team of Irish scientists is part of a global effort to find a genetic explanation for why some people seem to be resistant to Covid-19 while others get seriously ill.

The Covid Human Genetic Effort is an international consortium of scientists from more than 50 countries led by Jean Laurent Casanova of the Rockefeller University in New York and Helen Su of the US National Institutes of Health.

In a published a paper today (18 October) in the Nature Immunology journal, the consortium set out a strategy for understanding one of the pandemic’s most bewildering questions: why Covid-19 affects different people differently.

“Our challenge is to figure out how a person’s unique genetic makeup could determine if they get severely sick or die from Covid-19 infection,” said Su.

Irish contribution

The Irish group working in the consortium since June 2020 is led by Cliona O’Farrelly, who is a professor of comparative immunology at Trinity College Dublin, and is supported by Science Foundation Ireland.

“There is a growing awareness that many people seem to have innate immune-mediated resistance to viral infections,” she said.

Her team was previously involved in research that found around a third of Irish women with Rhesus-negative blood exposed to hepatitis C-contaminated anti-D immune globulin between the years 1977 and 1979 did not show symptoms of the virus.

“Because of that work, and growing information regarding the wildly variable responses that people have to Covid-19 exposure, we are convinced that a proportion of the population is resistant to the virus.”

Her team is based in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute and collaborates with scientists and clinicians at St James’s Hospital in Dublin.

Jamie Sugrue, who is a PhD candidate in O’Farrelly’s team, said that 30 people have been recruited from the hospital who tested negative for Covid-19 while living with someone who was infected.

These so-called ‘resistors’ will have their DNA and serum samples analysed by the team over the next 12 months to find genetic factors that may have influenced their innate immune response. Their living partners’ biological material will also be tested.

“We hope by combining the genetic, biological and serological data, we will identify a biomarker signature of resistance to Covid-19,” said Sugrue.

“This signature could then be used to find out with great accuracy how many people are resistant to Covid-19 and may help inform novel antiviral therapies.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic