BACKGROUND: Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a complex lung disease, characterized by progressive lung scarring. Severe COVID-19 is associated with substantial pneumonitis and has a number of shared major risk factors with IPF. This study aimed to determine the genetic correlation between IPF and severe COVID-19 and assess a potential causal role of genetically increased risk of IPF on COVID-19 severity.
METHODS: The genetic correlation between IPF and COVID-19 severity was estimated with linkage disequilibrium (LD) score regression. We performed a Mendelian randomization (MR) study for IPF causality in COVID-19. Genetic variants associated with IPF susceptibility (P<5 × 10-8) in previous genome-wide association studies (GWAS) were used as instrumental variables (IVs). Effect estimates of those IVs on COVID-19 severity were gathered from the GWAS meta-analysis by the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative (4,336 cases & 623,902 controls).
FINDINGS: We detected a positive genetic correlation of IPF with COVID-19 severity (rg=0·31 [95% CI 0·04-0·57], P = 0·023). The MR estimates for severe COVID-19 did not reveal any genetic association (OR 1·05, [95% CI 0·92-1·20], P = 0·43). However, outlier analysis revealed that the IPF risk allele rs35705950 at MUC5B had a different effect compared with the other variants. When rs35705950 was excluded, MR results provided evidence that genetically increased risk of IPF has a causal effect on COVID-19 severity (OR 1·21, [95% CI 1·06-1·38], P = 4·24 × 10-3). Furthermore, the IPF risk-allele at MUC5B showed an apparent protective effect against COVID-19 hospitalization only in older adults (OR 0·86, [95% CI 0·73-1·00], P = 2·99 × 10-2) .
INTERPRETATION: The strongest genetic determinant of IPF, rs35705950 at MUC5B, seems to confer protection against COVID-19, whereas the combined effect of all other IPF risk loci seem to confer risk of COVID-19 severity. The observed effect of rs35705950 could either be due to protective effects of mucin over-production on the airways or a consequence of selection bias due to (1) a patient group that is heavily enriched for the rs35705950 T undertaking strict self-isolation and/or (2) due to survival bias of the rs35705950 non-IPF risk allele carriers. Due to the diverse impact of IPF causal variants on SARS-CoV-2 infection, with a possible selection bias as an explanation, further investigation is needed to address this apparent paradox between variance at MUC5B and other IPF genetic risk factors.
FUNDING: Novo Nordisk Foundation and Oak Foundation.