People who suffer varying symptoms much after recovering from Covid infections, also called long Covid, could have had their genetic material altered by the virus, reveals a recent study. Published in journal Nature Microbiology by researchers in the United States, the study reveals that cells infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the pathogen causing Covid, showed extensive alterations in chromatin. Chromatin is the material of which chromosomes are composed, and includes RNA and DNA, which means all our genetic material. It was revealed that chromatin saw chemical changes too after SARS-CoV-2 infection. This alteration in chromatin has an effect on how DNA replicates, recombines, repairs and transcribes, thus affecting how a human cell acts and functions.
The changes in chromatin may lead to changes in key genes such as interleukin-6, which plays a major role in inflammation. Thus, the study provides some answers why many people suffered cytokine storms, particularly during the Delta variant phase, leading to high morbidity.
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While this is the first study confirming alterations in genome after Covid, more detailed studies are needed to affirm the impact of the virus, say experts. Dr Laxman Jessani, consultant, infectious diseases, Apollo Hospital, Navi Mumbai, says clinically they still have found no evidence of altered genome and says more data and studies looking into this aspect are needed. However, he confirms that during the Delta wave, many patients suffered cytokine storms and they saw elevated levels of IL-6 in these patients.
Dr Tanu Singhal, consultant, paediatrics and infectious disease, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai, also says cytokine storms were aplenty during Delta, but clinically it cannot be said that gene changes are responsible.
Long Covid is generally associated with fatigue, respiratory symptoms such as difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath, and cough. Other symptoms can include difficulty thinking or concentrating, headache, sleep problems, depression or anxiety, digestive symptoms, etc, says Dr Jessani.
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As for any gene therapy currently available to counter such genomic changes, Dr Jessani says currently no approved therapy is available that can be used to reverse potential genetic changes caused by Covid-19. “However, potential therapeutic approaches such as gene editing and gene therapy could help to address some of the long-term effects of the virus. We are awaiting more data on this aspect,” he says.