Some ARE Genetically Protected Against COVID-19 (but it’s not a Bioweapon, RFK, Jr.)

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Look, do I want to talk about RFK, Jr. again? Absolutely not. But his most recent public embarrassment inspired a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you, and one of the thoughts is actually a really positive thing, which is always nice to talk about on this channel. This channel where I usually just talk about depressing examples of the downfall of humanity.

First of all, if you’re new here you can pause this video and go back and watch my previous video about RFK, Jr., and how he’s a horrible antivaccine loon who is being pushed through this campaign by rightwing hate-mongers. So I’m not going to rehash those facts here.

Second, if you’re not aware of his most recent controversy, I’ll play a video originally published by the New York Post. It’s RFK, Jr. speaking at “a press event at an Upper East Side restaurant.” Before I play it, I saw in the comments on my last RFK, Jr. video that a lot of people had questions (and jokes) about his voice. RFK, Jr. has spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition that causes involuntary spasms in the vocal folds, leading to a kind of strangled sound. I can understand that he might be difficult for some people to listen to, but we do not mock or dismiss people because of a disorder they have no control over. We mock and dismiss them because of the stupid shit they say. Okay? Okay. Here we go.

So, this is pretty blatant antisemitic boilerplate, claiming that a virus was genetically engineered to “ethnically target” everyone except for Chinese people and Ashkenazi Jews. It’s an update on the very old antisemitic trope of Jewish Boshevism, an idea that communism is a Jewish plot to control the world. In this case, the communists that the Jews are in league with are the Chinese government.

I don’t know if RFK, Jr. is himself anti-semitic, but that doesn’t really matter. This soundbite proves beyond a shadow of a doubt who he has allied with, and who he’s listening to: alt-right bigots. 

As I mentioned last month, there’s still no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 was “engineered” at all, let alone that it was genetically programmed to attack non-Jewish white and black people. Several well-researched papers have been published in the past year showing that this virus most likely evolved in the same way previous coronaviruses evolved, in nature, likely in an animal like a bat.

RFK, Jr. says that “there are papers out there that show the racial or ethnic differential and impact,” which I assume means he’s talking about the well-known fact that certain populations were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. But “non-Jewish white people” are NOT one of those populations: by the end of 2021, researchers could clearly see that here in the United States the worst affected people were those in marginalized communities:

“Black, Latinx, and American Indian persons have been hospitalized and died at a higher rate than White persons consistently from the start of the pandemic. Early data show that hospitalization and mortality rates for Black, Latinx, and American Indian children are higher than White children in a worrying trend. The pandemic has likely worsened the gaps in wealth, employment, housing, and access to health care: the social determinants of health that caused the disparities in the first place. School closures will have a long-lasting impact on the widening achievement gaps between Black and Latinx students and White students. In the earlier vaccination phase, Black and Latinx persons were being vaccinated at a lower rate than their proportion of cases due to vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, and barriers to access.”

Is that because Black, Latinx, and American Indian populations have certain genes that allow them to be targeted by a virus? No. Race simply isn’t that clear-cut–there is no gene that indicates that someone is Black or White or Jewish. There ARE diseases for which some people are genetically predisposed to, and sometimes those follow racial lines. For instance, sickle cell anemia is more common amongst Black people in the United States, because it occurs when a person inherits two abnormal copies of a specific gene from their parents, and that abnormal gene is mostly found in regions of sub-Saharan Africa where malaria is present. It persisted over time in part because having ONE copy of the gene actually provides protection against malaria, so the person who has it is more likely to live long enough to reproduce. Unfortunately, having TWO copies results in this deadly condition.

But even though that means that people we consider Black have a higher risk of sickle-cell anemia, it doesn’t mean that a person who has that particular abnormal gene will be someone we consider Black or that anyone without that particular mutation is someone we consider not Black. We know that sickle cell anemia wasn’t genetically engineered to “target” Black people because it would be wildly inefficient and there would be no way to keep it contained only to Black people. Genetics just don’t work like that, and if you want to know more about that topic I heartily recommend you pick up a copy of my friend Adam Rutherford’s book “A Brief History Of Everyone Who Ever Lived.”

So no, COVID-19 didn’t “target” the genetics of White and Black people. The reason why Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 is, as researchers pointed out, due to systemic racism, lack of engagement with those communities, and health inequity.

But while COVID-19 wasn’t engineered to target the genetics of those groups, it MAY actually have evolved in a way that negatively affects a different group of genetically similar people, which is where I get to talk about interesting and positive science. 

A brand new paper, published this week in Nature, found that certain people might have a genetic mutation that gives them ten times the protection against COVID-19 compared to average. This is thanks to supercharged human leukocyte antigens, or HLA. Your HLA system is a group of genes that code proteins that cruise around your body grabbing little bits of protein trash and holding them up for immune cells to look at and figure out whether it’s something that needs attacking.

Some HLA proteins are better than others at finding certain bits to grab, so a team of immunogeneticists wanted to see if that could explain why some people get COVID and don’t even notice. They recruited about 30,000 people who were in the National Marrow Donor Program, because people who are in that database have already had their HLA genes decoded.

A quick aside: I’m in the National Marrow Donor Program and you should be, too, because your marrow could literally save someone’s life and you don’t even need it, really. Like, how much marrow are you even using right now? It’s super easy to sign up–they’ll send you a little kit and you send it back in and then you just wait to be called upon to save a life, like Batman but instead of a Bat signal it’s just a phone call.

Anyway, HLA is important in donating marrow, as donors and recipients need to match at least 6 markers for it to work. So, they followed their 30,000 subjects from July of 2020 until April of 2021, during which time about 13,000 subjects tested positive for COVID. In that group, about 10% of people were asymptomatic. In THAT group, 20% had the same specific HLA gene mutation.

To test this directly, the researchers tracked down frozen T-cells that were harvested from people with that same mutation prior to COVID. They thawed them out, gave them Sars-coV2, and sure enough those T-cells attacked and killed it immediately. It turns out that that abnormal gene’s proteins are really good at grabbing just the right part of coronaviruses to get a quick response, so people who have that mutation and have been exposed to any random common cold in their lives are more likely to be asymptomatic.

Pretty cool! This kind of research isn’t just super interesting, but it also gives researchers clues on how we might be able to treat conditions like long COVID, and how we might be able to stop the next pandemic before it starts.

I should mention that I have no idea if this group of people maps onto any particular race…I tried to figure out if I’m in that group (as someone who has never experienced COVID symptoms or tested positive), but my 23 and Me data doesn’t seem to include HLA and the Marrow Donor Program doesn’t offer data back to volunteers. That said, it IS certainly possible that the people who have this gene mutation tend to all be of one particular race or ethnicity. HLA types do tend to differ between ethnic groups, to the point that your ethnicity affects your chances of finding a match in the bone marrow registry (which is why it’s important to encourage a wide diversity of people to join the registry).

But again, this mutation’s advantage was only JUST discovered, the people who have it are in the vast minority, a virus that targets everyone who doesn’t have it would be wildly inefficient, and I can absolutely guarantee you that the people who have this mutation aren’t exclusively Chinese or Ashkenazi Jews.

In conclusion, DO register to donate bone marrow and DON’T vote for RFK, Jr. and his weird racist pseudoscience.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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