Respiratory Research (Jun 2023)

Ultra-rare RTEL1 gene variants associate with acute severity of COVID-19 and evolution to pulmonary fibrosis as a specific long COVID disorder

  • Laura Bergantini,
  • Margherita Baldassarri,
  • Miriana d’Alessandro,
  • Giulia Brunelli,
  • Gaia Fabbri,
  • Kristina Zguro,
  • Andrea Degl’Innocenti,
  • GEN-COVID Multicenter study,
  • Chiara Fallerini,
  • Elena Bargagli,
  • Alessandra Renieri

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 24, no. 1
pp. 1 – 9


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Abstract Background Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a novel coronavirus that caused an ongoing pandemic of a pathology termed Coronavirus Disease 19 (COVID-19). Several studies reported that both COVID-19 and RTEL1 variants are associated with shorter telomere length, but a direct association between the two is not generally acknowledged. Here we demonstrate that up to 8.6% of severe COVID-19 patients bear RTEL1 ultra-rare variants, and show how this subgroup can be recognized. Methods A cohort of 2246 SARS-CoV-2-positive subjects, collected within the GEN-COVID Multicenter study, was used in this work. Whole exome sequencing analysis was performed using the NovaSeq6000 System, and machine learning methods were used for candidate gene selection of severity. A nested study, comparing severely affected patients bearing or not variants in the selected gene, was used for the characterisation of specific clinical features connected to variants in both acute and post-acute phases. Results Our GEN-COVID cohort revealed a total of 151 patients carrying at least one RTEL1 ultra-rare variant, which was selected as a specific acute severity feature. From a clinical point of view, these patients showed higher liver function indices, as well as increased CRP and inflammatory markers, such as IL-6. Moreover, compared to control subjects, they present autoimmune disorders more frequently. Finally, their decreased diffusion lung capacity for carbon monoxide after six months of COVID-19 suggests that RTEL1 variants can contribute to the development of SARS-CoV-2-elicited lung fibrosis. Conclusion RTEL1 ultra-rare variants can be considered as a predictive marker of COVID-19 severity, as well as a marker of pathological evolution in pulmonary fibrosis in the post-COVID phase. This notion can be used for a rapid screening in hospitalized infected people, for vaccine prioritization, and appropriate follow-up assessment for subjects at risk. Trial Registration NCT04549831 ( )