Genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s also raise the risk of getting COVID-19

It’s unclear how the APOE4 gene variant may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus

APOE protein model

One version of the APOE protein (shown in a computer model) may make people more vulnerable to both Alzheimer's disease and COVID-19.

Alfred Pasieka/Science Source

A genetic variant that raises one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease may also make people more susceptible to COVID-19. 

People with two copies of a version of the APOE gene called APOE4 are 14 times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as people with two copies of the APOE3 version of the gene (SN: 9/22/17). Those people were also more than twice as likely to test positive for the coronavirus than people with two copies of the APOE3 version, researchers report May 26 in the Journals of Gerontology: Series A. The results come from a study of more than 600 people in England diagnosed with COVID-19 from March 16 to April 26.

Two previous studies showed that people with dementia were more likely to have severe cases or to die of COVID-19. This new study found that even people with no signs of dementia or other diseases associated with having APOE4 were still more susceptible to COVID-19 than people with the APOE3 version. 

Among nearly 400,000 participants in the large genetic database called the UK Biobank, only 3 percent have two copies of APOE4, while 69 percent have two copies of APOE3. The remainder have one of each version. 

But the APOE4 version was more common than expected among people diagnosed with COVID-19, the study found. Of 622 people who tested positive for the coronavirus, 37 had two copies of APOE4. On a population scale, that means about 410 of every 100,000 people with two copies of that version of the gene would test positive, the researchers calculate. That compares with 179 of every 100,000 people with two copies of APOE3 testing positive.

APOE is involved in handling cholesterol in the body and the protein also plays a role in some immune system functions. Exactly how APOE4 may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus isn’t understood yet. 

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

More Stories from Science News on Genetics