If You’ve Never Had COVID, This Mutation May Explain Why



At this point in the pandemic, everyone knows COVID-19 can affect different people in different ways. And while there’s little mystery as to why the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable, there is still little understanding of why some become “long-haulers” who continue to experience symptoms months after testing negative. And then there are the so-called “super-dodgers” who just don’t seem to get it no matter how many times they’re exposed. They became a hot topic earlier this summer as omicron subvariants swept the nation.

At that point, as the Washington Post reported in July, the majority of Americans had already experienced at least one bout with the disease, and those numbers have increased dramatically since then. Still, some people haven’t gotten it, and according to NPR, researchers at UC San Francisco may have struck on an explanation in the form of a mutation in the HLA gene, which plays a frontline role in confronting SARS-CoV-2, aka COVID-19. “These findings are like hot off the presses,” said lead researcher Jill Hollenbach, whose work has not yet been published. “It’s all stuff that’s been happening this summer.”

There are precedents in the history of virology showing that some people have innate protection against certain viruses, most notably in the 1990s, when researchers discovered some people are protected from HIV thanks to the absence of a specific molecule that “opens the door” to infection. COVID-19 doesn’t need the same type of key; however, researchers claim that the HLA gene was apparently “pre-programmed” in some people to release T cells that were readymade to fight off COVID-19. Essentially, people with this mutation get infected, but their immune response is so fast that it zaps the virus before symptoms can arise. Hollenback attributes the mutation to pre-pandemic infections with common coronaviruses. She also says the mutation’s presence is a matter of sheer luck and estimates roughly a tenth of people have it. (Read more COVID-19 stories.)

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