Common gene variants linked to sepsis and COVID-19 severity in African Americans

Two genetic risk variants that are carried by nearly 40% of Black individuals may exacerbate the severity of both sepsis and COVID-19, a team of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine find. The findings, published in Immunity, identify two potential pathways to reduce the health disparities driven by these gene mutations.

Microscopic rendering of sepsis cells.

“Our findings indicate that the APOL1 risk variants could explain an important racial disparity observed in sepsis incidence and severity among Black individuals,” says the study’s lead author, Katalin Susztak, a professor of renal-electrolyte and hypertension. “Furthermore, our work implies that the identification of subjects with the high-risk APOL1 genotype might be important for disease risk prediction and early intervention.” 

Each year, at least 1.7 million adults in the United States develop a sepsis infection, resulting in nearly 270,000 deaths. In the U.S., patients of African ancestry have a 67% higher severe sepsis hospitalization rate and 20% increased likelihood of dying from the condition compared to white individuals, even after adjusting for co-variates. Similarly, COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans, with higher infection rates and more severe disease.

Two variants of the gene APOL1—G1 and G2are found almost exclusively in people of West African descent. Carrying one gene variant imparts resistance against African sleeping sickness, while having two gene variants significantly increases the risk of developing chronic kidney disease, as well as HIV and COVID- induced glomerular disease, which has been recently studied by the Susztak lab.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.