Decoding COVID-19

News / Research / Critical Care
By John Pereira

KHSC researchers leading Canadian efforts to better understand virus through genome testing

Over the course of the pandemic, there has been one question about the COVID-19 virus that has continued to resurface. Why does the virus seem to more seriously affect certain patients more than others? Researchers at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) are leading the Canadian efforts to find out; and the answer may lay in our DNA.

“At a high-level, the medical community has always wondered why some people get sick with certain types of infections and end up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and others don’t. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to look into this further,” says KHSC intensive care specialist and associate professor with Queen’s University, Dr. David Maslove.

So the study set out to determine why some people in the early stages of the pandemic seemingly contracted COVID-19 and suffered only mild symptoms, while others, many who were young and in generally good health ended up in the ICU on a ventilator.

“When COVID patients come into the ICU, we take one tube of blood and send it to Sick Kids Hospital to sequence the patient’s entire genome in their laboratory,” says Dr. Maslove. “We can now see there are some genetic traits associated with severe COVID and this gives us a better understanding of the disease. If we can learn about how the body is responding, we could learn how to better treat, or prevent people from getting severe cases of COVID-19.”

With startup funding from the Southeastern Ontario Academic Medical Organization (SEAMO), Canada became the first country to export the GenOMICC study outside of the United Kingdom, where it was started by Dr. Kenneth Baillie.

So far, more than 10,000 patients have been recruited around the world, with a goal of recruiting 100,000 in total. Nearly 100 patient participants have been recruited through KHSC, and the team has initiated further participation of close to 300 patients in Ontario. Currently teams in the United States, Australia, China and India are in the process of setting themselves up to begin recruiting patients.

The KHSC team, is now currently reviewing the data from the fully sequenced genomes of patients from 2020. The sequencing of more recent patient participants is now underway.

“We hope to carry the research forward after the pandemic, so when someone comes to the ICU with something odd or unexplained we can take a tube of blood and do this work to better understand why they are sick,” says Dr. Maslove. “ICUs are the canary in the coal mine. Infections or diseases are seen in the ICU early, and from a public health perspective we could have a better network to identify trends earlier in future pandemics.”