Solving the mystery of why COVID-19 kills a disproportionate number of Black Americans


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Why are Black people in America three times more likely to die from COVID-19? Studies show a patient’s zip code plays a role in health disparities but new research shows DNA is also a factor.

Black people make up about 13 percent of the population, but 22 percent of the people killed by COVID-19.

Dr. Robert Winn, director of the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently partnered with researchers at Oxford University to investigate whether something in the DNA that causes high blood pressure in Black Americans is also leading to a staggering COVID-19 death rate.

Dr. Robert Winn (Photo courtesy: VCU)

“Just like in high blood pressure, the ACE receptors are active and highly active and they seem to be really hyperactive in African Americans,” said Winn.

That hyperactivity could go biologically ballistic when the body is exposed to the novel coronavirus. Winn says there is a subgroup that quickly falls victim to the dreaded cytokine storm.

“This is the concept of too much of a good thing ain’t good,” said Winn.

The cytokine storm can occur within a week of infection from the coronavirus. During the so-called storm, the immune system goes overboard in responding to the virus by creating inflammation that destroys organs. Many persons of African descent are familiar with keloids that form following a cut or trauma to the skin. Winn says the immune system’s overreaction that causes keloids is akin to the overreaction that triggers the deadly cytokine storm.

Winn’s research shows cytokine storms can be brought under control when certain patients are given ACE D inhibitors to clam hyperactive ACE receptors.

“And when we used the ACE D inhibitor, that was the polymorph that we saw, we could see that there was a potentially better outcome,” said Winn.

Winn says the DNA of African Americans often gets another assault from how patients live.

Dr. Robert Winn (Photo courtesy: VCU)

“Let’s not play that it’s only about our genetic basis. The truth of the matter is when you live in high-stress areas — poor access to food, when you’re in a house where you cannot separate — remember those things are impacting your genes in real-time.

Several studies are being used to promote the use of certain ACE inhibitors to block the formation of cytokine storms. While the science on COVID-19 and DNA is still under review, Winn says the best thing you can do now is to wear a mask, practice social distancing and get a flu shot.

View the study done by Winn and others.

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