Causal Inference for Genetic Obesity, Cardiometabolic Profile and COVID-19 Susceptibility: A Mendelian Randomization Study

Front Genet. 2020 Nov 11;11:586308. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2020.586308. eCollection 2020.


Background: Cross-sectional observational studies have reported obesity and cardiometabolic co-morbidities as important predictors of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) hospitalization. The causal impact of these risk factors is unknown at present.

Methods: We conducted multivariable logistic regression to evaluate the observational associations between obesity traits (body mass index [BMI], waist circumference [WC]), quantitative cardiometabolic parameters (systolic blood pressure [SBP], serum glucose, serum glycated hemoglobin [HbA1c], low-density lipoprotein [LDL] cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein [HDL] cholesterol and triglycerides [TG]) and SARS-CoV-2 positivity in the UK Biobank cohort. One-sample MR was performed by using the genetic risk scores of obesity and cardiometabolic traits constructed from independent datasets and the genotype and phenotype data from the UK Biobank. Two-sample MR was performed using the summary statistics from COVID-19 host genetics initiative. Cox proportional hazard models were fitted to assess the risk conferred by different genetic quintiles of causative exposure traits.

Results: The study comprised 1,211 European participants who were tested positive for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and 387,079 participants who were either untested or tested negative between 16 March 2020 to 31 May 2020. Observationally, higher BMI, WC, HbA1c and lower HDL-cholesterol were associated with higher odds of COVID-19 infection. One-sample MR analyses found causal associations between higher genetically determined BMI and LDL cholesterol and increased risk of COVID-19 (odds ratio [OR]: 1.15, confidence interval [CI]: 1.05-1.26 and OR: 1.58, CI: 1.21-2.06, per 1 standard deviation increment in BMI and LDL cholesterol respectively). Two-sample MR produced concordant results. Cox models indicated that individuals in the higher genetic risk score quintiles of BMI and LDL were more predisposed to COVID-19 (hazard ratio [HR]: 1.24, CI: 1.03-1.49 and HR: 1.37, CI: 1.14-1.65, for the top vs the bottom quintile for BMI and LDL cholesterol, respectively).

Conclusion: We identified causal associations between BMI, LDL cholesterol and susceptibility to COVID-19. In particular, individuals in higher genetic risk categories were predisposed to SARS-CoV-2 infection. These findings support the integration of BMI into the risk assessment of COVID-19 and allude to a potential role of lipid modification in the prevention and treatment.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; lipid profile; mendelian randomization; obesity.