Cambridge University scientists are developing a test to predict who is most likely to suffer severe or minor symptoms if they catch Covid-19.
It is hoped analysis of people’s “molecular fingerprint” - the combinations of chemicals in a persons’ body - will reveal a biochemical pattern that predicts who is most at risk and who is likely to barely notice if they get coronavirus.
The research, which is being conducted in partnership with a specialist laboratory in Australia, could solve the frustration felt by those who are over 70 and classified as being vulnerable and told to stay home despite being fit and healthy.
If successful the project would mean those who turn out to be relatively resistant to Covid-19, but might otherwise have regarded themselves as at high risk, can feel more confident about venturing out or returning to work.
Dr Chris Smith, a virologist who is leading the UK side of the research, said establishing “biomarkers” obtained from blood and urine could create a simple, fast and cheap system to to identify those at most and least risk. While it would not technically provide a so-called “immunity passport”, it could help people make informed choices about how they behave until a vaccine is found.
Samples from British patients stored at Cambridge will be sent to the Australian National Phenome Centre (ANPC), in Perth, where they will be analysed for their biochemical characteristics to establish why people react so differently to the disease.
The laboratory is using state-of-the-art mass spectrometry and data modelling to build up a picture of biomarkers to try to beat the unique element of the disease - its wide variation in both symptoms and severity.
Dr Smith said: “We know that only a small fraction of people who get this virus are going to have a problem with it. What we don’t know is, who those people are, until they have already caught it, but by then it may be too late.
“So, is there a molecular fingerprint in a person that will tell us who is at risk and who isn’t?
“Some people are saying let’s sequence the DNA, but it’s really laborious sequencing DNA and it may not actually tell whether you are vulnerable. It just tells you about the recipe book that runs your body, not how the environment you live in, or your lifestyle, is interacting with your genetic makeup to affect your risk.
“But if you take a blood or urine sample, at the phenome centre we can look at the thousands of different molecules that are in the average person. We can analyse the different molecules present - for instance, the level of salt, potassium, chlorine - to get a unique chemical fingerprint.
“That chemical fingerprint - called a phenome - is predictive of how a person’s body is working. If we take people who have had coronavirus and recovered without any trouble and compare their chemical fingerprints with those who have caught coronavirus and nearly died or did die, we are hoping to find a molecular fingerprint of one over the other.”
Dr Smith is hoping to enlist the support of the Royal Australian Air Force to fly UK samples from Cambridge to the specialist lab in Perth.
“That test could mean you can tell someone who is 80 who may be regarded as being in the shielding group, that they can stop worrying and go out,” added Dr Smith, whose research will appear in his podcast as well as feature on the BBC radio show 5 Live Science.
Professor Jeremy Nicholson, who runs the ANPC labs in Western Australia, said he hopes the research could solve the unique challenges posed by Covid-19; a disease which can cause wide ranging severe symptoms or none at all.