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Genetic Link to Loss of Smell in COVID Patients

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23andMe Inc., a leading consumer genetics and research company, today announced 23andMe researchers have identified a new genetic variant associated with COVID-19 induced loss of smell and taste.

The findings, published in a preprint released on medRxiv, note that the genetic variant is near two olfactory genes. Loss of smell and/or taste, also called anosmia, is a hallmark symptom of COVID-19. An individual with one copy of the variant is about 11.5% more likely to lose their sense of smell or taste if infected compared to someone with zero copies.

The research builds on the work already done by 23andMe over the last year that includes new findings around the role blood type plays in severity and susceptibility to the virus. Because the novel coronavirus first enters the body and accumulates in olfactory support cells, the findings may offer researchers important insights into the biological pathway for infection.

For these findings, the researchers again used data from more than one million people who consented to participate in 23andMe’s COVID-19 Study. By examining the differences in the genome between COVID-19 cases who did and did not experience loss of taste or smell, 23andMe scientists identified an association on chromosome 4 near the olfactory genes UGT2A1 and UGT2A2.

68% of those in the 23andMe COVID-19 study who tested positive for the virus reported a loss of smell or taste, compared to just 17% of those who tested negative. Furthermore, in a model adjusted for other symptoms, age, and sex, the loss of smell or taste carried a seven-fold increased likelihood of testing positive for COVID.

The scientists ran separate genome-wide association studies for individuals of European, Latino, African American, East Asian, and South Asian ancestries, and then combined the data via a meta-analysis. The researchers found the frequency of the risk allele is most commonly observed in individuals of European ancestry (37%) and least commonly observed in individuals of East Asian ancestry (19%).

The researchers also found that among younger people with COVID-19 the loss of smell and taste was more common. Among those aged 26-35, 73% reported a loss of smell, whereas only 43% reported a loss of smell in those 85 or older. When the researchers looked at differences between men and women they found that women were more likely to report loss of smell or taste (72% versus 61%).

Edited by Maryssa Gordon, Senior Editor, Price of Business Digital Network

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