The Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher, Sun Tzu, is believed to have said, “Know thy self, know thy enemy – a thousand battles, a thousand victories”. While I am certain Sun Tzu was not thinking about a coordinated attack by an invisible enemy on the entire human race, what I am certain about is that he understood the Art of War. The current pandemic crisis has pitched humans against SARS2-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. Just as the strategic use of war tactics have influenced many important battles throughout history, the secret to our success will be tied to how we approach to defeat this deadly virus.
Like any war, while it is important to understand the force of the enemy, it is equally important to understand one’s own capability and capacity to fight. Just as it is important to understand the genetic evolution of the virus, it is imperative that we also understand the host (human) genetics response to this particular enemy. Now is the time to take advantage of our collective scientific knowledge of the viral and host genetics to protect communities around the globe.
The obvious starting point is the comparison of the genomes of people who have experienced serious and life-threatening symptoms, to those experiencing mild or no symptoms. The goal will be to understand the variation in disease severity as a direct function of the version of the human genome one carries. As evidenced by our understanding of the human genome role in response to the SARS outbreak, disease severity and outcomes may be attributable to the host genetics profile. Early studies on COVID-19 patients also point to the fact that the difference in disease severity might be predominantly rooted deep into a person’s own genetic makeup. In this global fight against SARS-CoV-2, we must understand how we respond to the many tactical (genetic) variations the virus throws at us.
Studying coronavirus-host interactions will not only yield valuable insights into the molecular function of the replicative cycle and pathogenesis, but will also be a starting point for the development of antiviral strategies to complement the efforts of vaccine development and disease control. In the last two months, the scientific community has rallied together to highlight the importance of understanding the role of the host genome. Recognizing the importance of the pressing need to build a database of Canadian host genomic information, the Canadian Federal Government recently committed $20 million in funding to CGEn, Canada’s national facility for genome sequencing and analysis, to lead a nation-wide Host Genome Sequencing Initiative with the aim to sequence genomes of 10,000 Canadians affected by COVID-19. For this initiative, CGEn has been specifically tasked to sequence the genomes of individuals affected by COVID-19 and build a Canadian genomic data resource that is accessible to Canadian researchers and will aid in studying genetic risk factors associated with the severity of COVID-19. Such a resource will help scientists discover host genetic susceptibility factors, inform public health decisions regarding COVID-19 and bring us closer to enabling personalized risk prediction and precision therapeutic strategies.
The only way to claim victory is to predict future moves of the (mutating) enemy while understanding our own strengths and weaknesses, so that we can effectively respond today and stay ahead during any future outbreak.
This pandemic has no doubt encouraged collaborations and coordination at a global scale. Governments, provincial jurisdictions and local health authorities have been forced to rethink their policies around information sharing and data exchange. I believe that there is life after COVID. In that life, it will be essential that we, as a collective, look at how we evolve our policies that allow us to think, not just as one nation, but also as a united human race.
In this war of us (humans) versus them (virus), we have to win – the future of humanity depends on it!