Photo/Illutration A computer rendering of the COVID-19 virus by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS)

Researchers have started a project analyzing genes of COVID-19 patients here to determine if race plays a part in the development of severe symptoms and differences in death rates.

The disease from the novel coronavirus has killed 300 to 500 lives per million people in the United States and Britain, while the mortality rate in Japan is far lower, at only about 6 per million.

The scientists in the project assume the difference cannot be explained by lifestyle factors and disparities in health care systems alone.

They will conduct a genome analysis to test their hypothesis that the immune response varies according to differences in genes between racial groups.

If factors that lead to severe symptoms can be identified, the findings would be useful for work in creating a vaccine, officials said.

The scientists in the project, funded by the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, are from seven universities, including the University of Tokyo, Osaka University and Kyoto University, and one research institution.

The team will work with 40 or so health care institutions in Japan to study blood samples taken from at least 600 COVID-19 patients, including those with no symptoms and those in serious condition.

A report will be worked out no later than September.

Takanori Kanai, a professor of internal medicine at Keio University, will serve as principal investigator.

The project will have a special focus on human leukocyte antigens (HLA), which play a key role in immune reactions.

The researchers will compare the HLA types of patients in severe condition with those of patients who exhibit no symptoms to identify genes that are peculiar to the seriously ill patients.

The results will be compared with similar analyses in Western countries and could help determine why there have been fewer COVID-19 deaths among Japanese, the officials said.

“Gene analysis of the virus alone would only amount to half of the complete study,” said Satoru Miyano, a designated professor of gene analysis with Tokyo Medical and Dental University. “The genes of humans, who are the hosts for the virus, should also be analyzed to complement vaccine development work.”

If genes are identified as being associated with resistance to COVID-19 infection, blood tests among healthy individuals could determine the risk of worsening symptoms, said Miyano, who is director of the university’s M&D Data Science Center.

Such gene identification could also help in the development of vaccines and therapeutic drugs against COVID-19, he added.

Genes and infectious diseases are closely interrelated. An HIV-resistant genetic mutation has been found, as has a genetic disease that blocks immunity to influenza and pneumonia.

It is also known that some ethnic groups are more prone than others to contract specific diseases because of differences in genes.

For example, ethnic groups living along the Silk Road of olden times are more vulnerable to develop Behcet’s disease.

(This article was written by Takeshi Hatakawa and Ryutaro Ito.)