Researchers identify genes that may boost protection against Covid

Researchers from the University of Oxford led by Professor Julian Knight, Tutor in Medicine at Merton, have identified a particular gene associated with a high antibody response following vaccination with two commonly used COVID-19 vaccines. Their findings, published in Nature Medicine, come from a study looking at how certain genes can help generate a strong immune response to COVID-19 vaccines.

The researchers found people carrying an allele (version) of an HLA gene called HLA-DQB1*06 generated a higher antibody response than those who did not. They also found that people with this gene - around 30% to 40% of the UK's population - were less likely to experience COVID-19 infection following vaccination than those who do not have it.

The HLA gene helps the immune system distinguish the body's own proteins from foreign ones made by the likes of viruses and bacteria. The researchers say the study provides some of the first evidence of a relationship between genetic factors and the way people’s immune systems respond to COVID-19 vaccines.

Julian Knight, who is Professor of Genomic Medicine at the University’s Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics and the study's Chief Investigator, said:

"From this study we have evidence that our genetic makeup is one of the reasons why we may differ from each other in our immune response following COVID-19 vaccination. We found that inheriting a specific variant of an HLA gene was associated with higher antibody responses — but this is only the start of the story. Further work is needed to better understand the clinical significance of this specific association, and more broadly what identifying this gene variant can tell us about how effective immune responses are generated and ways to continue to improve vaccines for everyone."

The team acknowledge there is also an urgent need to understand whether the findings are applicable to more ethnically diverse populations, because different groups have different levels of the gene variant.

The researchers initially analysed samples from 1,190 participants who enrolled in the University of Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. To back up their findings, they also examined DNA from 1,677 adults who had enrolled on Oxford’s Com-COV research programme, and from children who had participated in clinical trials for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Dr Alexander Mentzer, NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics and a lead researcher on the study, said:

"We have seen a wide variation in how quickly people test positive for COVID-19 after vaccination. Our findings suggest that our genetic code may influence how likely this is to happen over time. We hope that our findings will help us improve vaccines for the future so they not only stop us developing severe disease, but also keep us symptom-free for as long as possible."

Dr Daniel O’Connor, University Research Lecturer at the Oxford Vaccine Group and co-author of the study, added:

"This study shows that our genetic makeup, in addition to factors such as age and health status, impacts on how well we respond to vaccines and our subsequent risk of diseases — such as COVID-19 — which could have important implications in the design and implementation of future vaccines."