Genetics & COVID-19: An Update

In my last post I told a story about Native Alaskan firefighters, who had come south to fight fires, getting sick on MRIs (“meals ready to eat”) and being fed suet to right their stomachs. A long-time Alaska firefighter tells me that this is mostly “urban legend,” that she has seen Native crews in Alaska consume MRIs “with gusto.”

Nevertheless, I think most of us Euro-Americans would not do well on a diet of seal and fish. Human digestive systems have adapted to different physical worlds in amazing ways. Yet that means that putting any of us into alien worlds—or bringing alien diets and physical circumstances to us—can cause distress. I don’t know why many South Asians are lactose intolerant, but they are. And many Indians do fine with a lifetime of vegetarian diets, but we are warned to make sure that we have the right mixes of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts to make our Euro-American bodies work vegetarian.

And it is not just foods and diet. I don’t know why sickle cell is more prevalent in Africans and African descendants in other places than it is in other populations. But it is. I don’t know how long it took and don’t understand the long process that bleached human skin as we moved north. I know it has something to do with capturing the sun’s vitamins.  And I know that too much sun can be toxic to my northern European inherited skin tone.

In other words, we all carry a big bucket of inherited advantages and proclivities as we move about in the world. And I believe that these buckets that we humans bring to particular physical and mental stresses is a mixture of nature and nurture—and the interrelationships of both. Scientists can make rats suffer from post-traumatic stress generationally! We now think that the same is true of humans.

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I am horrified by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and latinx populations in America, and agree with most of the media that lays much of the blame on the high percentage of jobs in the vulnerable service industries, and the overall incidence of poverty that affects them more severely than it does the Euro-American population. I also believe that racism—often but not always unconscious—leads to stress and stress-related diseases, and often to unequal medical treatment, from the ambulance to the surgery room. Black people, the studies show, are assumed to have more tolerance for pain!

I am also pissed that the leadership and the national media pay little attention to the equally hard times that American Indian populations are experiencing with COVID-19. As of April 14, the Indian Health Service had tested a paltry 13,385 people, with 1212 testing positive. More than half of the positives were on the Navajo Nation (a local Arizona paper reports over 1000 Navajo cases and 41 deaths as of 4/16). A recent HuffPost article on the Navajo Nation reports “more confirmed cases of COVID-19 per capita than almost every U.S. state, behind only New York and New Jersey.” It goes on to say that “Experts have warned that Native populations are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 given their high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other underlying conditions.” In other words, American Indians, like blacks and latinx, suffer more because of environmental conditions.

But if the virologists that Charles Mann quotes in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus are correct, Native American populations were—and might still be—genetically more susceptible to infectious diseases than are other populations.

I understand that we are all humans together, and that the differences in skin color, eye shape and body shape are “superficial” in any grand mapping of genes.  And that the genetic differences across a given population might range as widely as they do across the entire human population.

But those lumps of accumulated genetic material—shaped at least in part by millennia of environmental factors—that make Africans disproportionately more susceptible to sickle cell anemia, and me more susceptible to sunburn than are they, and that once made the indigenous people of the Americas extremely susceptible to European born infectious diseases, might just be part of the COVID-19 equation today.

And somewhere in the current frenzy of scientific research, closely examining all environmental factors as they go,  I would think that researchers might look for genetic clues to acceptance and resistance to this—and other related—infectious diseases.

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