Pietzner M, Chua RL, Wheeler E, Jechow K, Willett JDS, Radbruch H, Trump S, Heidecker B, Zeberg H, Heppner FL, Eils R, Mall MA, Richards JB, Sander LE, Lehmann I, Lukassen S, Wareham NJ, Conrad C, Langenberg C
Nat Commun 13 (1) 4484 [2022-08-15; online 2022-08-15]
Despite two years of intense global research activity, host genetic factors that predispose to a poorer prognosis of COVID-19 infection remain poorly understood. Here, we prioritise eight robust (e.g., ELF5) or suggestive but unreported (e.g., RAB2A) candidate protein mediators of COVID-19 outcomes by integrating results from the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative with population-based plasma proteomics using statistical colocalisation. The transcription factor ELF5 (ELF5) shows robust and directionally consistent associations across different outcome definitions, including a >4-fold higher risk (odds ratio: 4.88; 95%-CI: 2.47-9.63; p-value < 5.0 × 10-6) for severe COVID-19 per 1 s.d. higher genetically predicted plasma ELF5. We show that ELF5 is specifically expressed in epithelial cells of the respiratory system, such as secretory and alveolar type 2 cells, using single-cell RNA sequencing and immunohistochemistry. These cells are also likely targets of SARS-CoV-2 by colocalisation with key host factors, including ACE2 and TMPRSS2. In summary, large-scale human genetic studies together with gene expression at single-cell resolution highlight ELF5 as a risk gene for severe COVID-19, supporting a role of epithelial cells of the respiratory system in the adverse host response to SARS-CoV-2.