Host methylation predicts SARS-CoV-2 infection and clinical outcome

Commun Med (Lond). 2021 Oct 26;1(1):42. doi: 10.1038/s43856-021-00042-y.


Background: Since the onset of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, most clinical testing has focused on RT-PCR1. Host epigenome manipulation post coronavirus infection2-4 suggests that DNA methylation signatures may differentiate patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection from uninfected individuals, and help predict COVID-19 disease severity, even at initial presentation.

Methods: We customized Illumina's Infinium MethylationEPIC array to enhance immune response detection and profiled peripheral blood samples from 164 COVID-19 patients with longitudinal measurements of disease severity and 296 patient controls.

Results: Epigenome-wide association analysis revealed 13,033 genome-wide significant methylation sites for case-vs-control status. Genes and pathways involved in interferon signaling and viral response were significantly enriched among differentially methylated sites. We observe highly significant associations at genes previously reported in genetic association studies (e.g. IRF7, OAS1). Using machine learning techniques, models built using sparse regression yielded highly predictive findings: cross-validated best fit AUC was 93.6% for case-vs-control status, and 79.1%, 80.8%, and 84.4% for hospitalization, ICU admission, and progression to death, respectively.

Conclusions: In summary, the strong COVID-19-specific epigenetic signature in peripheral blood driven by key immune-related pathways related to infection status, disease severity, and clinical deterioration provides insights useful for diagnosis and prognosis of patients with viral infections.

Plain language summary

Viral infections affect the body in many ways, including via changes to the epigenome, the sum of chemical modifications to an individual’s collection of genes that affect gene activity. Here, we analyzed the epigenome in blood samples from people with and without COVID-19 to determine whether we could find changes consistent with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Using a combination of statistical and machine learning techniques, we identify markers of SARS-CoV-2 infection as well as of severity and progression of COVID-19 disease. These signals of disease progression were present from the initial blood draw when first walking into the hospital. Together, these approaches demonstrate the potential of measuring the epigenome for monitoring SARS-CoV-2 status and severity.