DNA-testing company23andMe Inc. has launched a new tool that aims to predict an infected person’s risk of developing a severe case of Covid-19, expanding the company’s bid to deliver actionable insight on health.
The company’s new COVID-19 Severity Calculator was launched on Wednesday. It pulls data from a Covid-19 study begun in April that queried more than a million participants on their ethnicity, lifestyle, height, weight, health conditions, genetics and experience with the disease, among other things. The calculator is based on data from about 10,000 study participants who tested positive for the virus, and more than 750 who were hospitalized.
An algorithm was created from the data that the company says can predict the likelihood of hospitalization for those infected. The ability of companies such as 23andMe to show that DNA tests can do more than help people explore their heritage is key to the growth of the consumer genomics industry.
“We quickly published the results and sought ways to help people benefit more directly from the research,” said Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “We’ve found giving people actionable information – like this tool – drives meaningful results.”
Anyone can use the tool. Just input data points like age, sex and pre-existing health conditions, and the algorithm will spit out the percentage of people with those characteristics likely to be hospitalized with the virus.
The tool does not incorporate genetic factors in analyzing a person’s risk, but as more research uncovers associations between genetics and the coronavirus, that may come down the line.
After a years-long boom in consumer genomics, sales of the testing kits that promise genetic insights into heritage and health havebegun to slip. Early last year, both 23andMe and its largest competitor,Ancestry.com LLC, cut jobs significantly. After launching a health-focused DNA test 15 months ago in an effort to compete with 23andMe, Ancestry this month announced that it would kill the product and cut 77 more jobs.
For Wojcicki, becoming more valuable to the company’s customers by bringing them useful health information has been a key goal all along.
“More than 75% of our customers have told us they’ve taken a positive health action based on their 23andMe results,” she said in an interview. The company has not only sought to use its data to generate new genetic insights, but also to turn those insights into therapeutics.
Last year, the Mountain View, California-based company licensed a drug it developed in-house to another company for the first time, and it also has a deal to collaborate on drug development withGlaxoSmithKline Plc, which took a $300 million stake in the company in 2018.
When the pandemic hit, 23andMe sought to demonstrate the value of genomics and a more personalized health care approach. In April, 23andMe launched its study to shed light on the role genetics play in the disease, research that could be especially helpful when it comes to Covid-19.
Factors such as age and underlying health conditions can determine how people fare once they’ve contracted Covid-19, but those things alone don’t explain the wide diversity of symptoms, or why some people contract the disease and others don’t.
Studying the genetics of the people who are more susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 could help identify and protect those more at risk, as well as help speed treatment and drug development.
In June, 23andMepublished research that bolstered evidence that a person’s blood type can affect a person’s susceptibility to Covid-19 by looking at a gene that influences blood type. Further study revealed another interesting finding that the company unveiled with the new tool: how much a person exercises seems to significantly influence their disease experience, regardless of other factors, according to Janie Shelton, a 23andMe senior scientist and epidemiologist.
“The things we found to be associated are informative, but they can’t necessarily predict the future,” she said. “What it does do is motivate people to continue their exercise habit.” Or, perhaps, start one.
The study only looked at correlations — it did not examine underlying mechanisms that might, for example, make exercise a good defense against the coronavirus. Exercise has been shown to benefit the immune system, however, Shelton said.
“This is sort of a first step where we’re trying to give people more accessible information about themselves,” Shelton said.
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