Why are Hispanic populations more vulnerable to COVID-19? Could be genetics, Fresno doctor says

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A Fresno doctor is part of a nationwide study looking at the role of genetics, looking for hints about why the coronavirus is killing certain ethnicities at higher rates.

The coronavirus kills older people and patients with underlying conditions at much higher rates. We know that.

In Fresno County, almost half the people who have died from COVID-19 were 75 or older. And 85% of the victims had an underlying condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.

"Any chronic disease basically takes away from your resilience," said Dr. Rais Vohra, the county's interim health officer.

It's harder to make sense of why 66% of the victims -- 44 of the first 67 -- are Hispanic, but UCSF Fresno Dr. Marina Roytman is researching one possible explanation in the liver.

"The liver is one of the organs of the immune system," the hepatologist said. "It may not be very well known, but the liver is very much responsible for keeping us healthy and keeping the germs under control."

For a lot of patients, COVID-19 won't do much damage to the liver. But for patients who already have compromised liver function because of inflammation or scarring, the disease can wreak havoc.

Dr. Roytman studies non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which has nothing to do with alcohol but a lot to do with genes.

"The research has shown that patients of certain ethnicities - and most relevant for the Central Valley are patients of Hispanic origin - have something called a genetic polymorphism," Dr. Roytman said.

That means their genes are just slightly different and they predispose Hispanic people to developing fatty liver disease even if they're not as obese as other Caucasians, or have other risk factors like diabetes.

"So one of the questions that I have is 'Does this predisposition potentially play a role in our higher mortality in Hispanic patients?'"

Doctors can do a biopsy or use a special scanning device at Community Regional Medical Centers to diagnose fatty liver disease.

Dr. Roytman is part of a consortium of 21 medical centers examining about 1000 patients.

Their initial research is under peer review right now, but they're pushing to get fatty liver disease patients in drug and treatment trials because of their vulnerability.
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