A breakthrough discovery in understanding why some people become more unwell with COVID-19 than others has helped experts identify drugs that can help treat it.

Edinburgh University researchers have found five genes which are associated with antiviral defences and lung inflammation.

They say people who have these genes are more suspectable to becoming significantly unwell with coronavirus.

This finding has led them to look at the best types of medication which could be used to treat the condition and are now being prioritised for clinical trials.

One particular drug which the research team think could significantly help treat COVID-19 is a rheumatoid arthritis medicine called baricitinib. The medication reduces the activity of the gene TYK2, which they believe will help lower lung  inflammation.

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Dr Kenneth Baillie, a consultant in critical care medicine and senior research fellow at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said: “It’s absolutely startling we’ve seen these results so quickly after the start of the outbreak.

“What is really exciting about this is we’ve found genes that are directly therapeutically relevant. They lead us directly to treatments.”

The trial involved looking at the DNA of more than 2,000 people, who had become critically ill with COVID-19, and compared their genetic make-up with just over 200 healthy individuals.

Co-author of the study, Professor Peter Openshaw, from Imperial College London, said: “This is a wonderful breakthrough, really, in understanding what causes the severe disease.”

The findings have been shared with groups around the world who are running clinical trials to assess whether drugs that are already in use for other conditions can help save patients with severe Covid-19 disease. Those include the World Health Organization’s Solidarity trial, Oxford University’s Recovery trial and an international trial named Remap-Cap.

Researchers around the world are sharing their key drug findings, which Dr Baillie said must become a top priority.

He said: “Making those choices really matters. If we choose the right intervention to try next in clinical trials then we’ll find out that it works sooner and that could save tens of thousands of lives.”

The study findings have been published in the journal Nature.

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