A blood RNA transcriptome signature for COVID-19

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Background: COVID-19 is a respiratory viral infection with unique features including a more chronic course and systemic disease manifestations including multiple organ involvement; and there are differences in disease severity between ethnic groups. The immunological basis for disease has not been fully characterised. Analysis of whole-blood RNA expression may provide valuable information on disease pathogenesis. Methods: We studied 45 patients with confirmed COVID-19 infection within 10 days from onset of illness and a control group of 19 asymptomatic healthy volunteers with no known exposure to COVID-19 in the previous 14 days. Relevant demographic and clinical information was collected and a blood sample was drawn from all participants for whole-blood RNA sequencing. We evaluated differentially-expressed genes in COVID-19 patients (log2 fold change ≥ 1 versus healthy controls; false-discovery rate < 0.05) and associated protein pathways and compared these to published whole-blood signatures for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza. We developed a disease score reflecting the overall magnitude of expression of internally-validated genes and assessed the relationship between the disease score and clinical disease parameters. Results: We found 135 differentially-expressed genes in the patients with COVID-19 (median age 35 years; 82% male; 36% Chinese, 53% South Asian ethnicity). Of the 117 induced genes, 14 were found in datasets from RSV and 40 from influenza; 95 genes were unique to COVID-19. Protein pathways were mostly generic responses to viral infections, including apoptosis by P53-associated pathway, but also included some unique pathways such as viral carcinogenesis. There were no major qualitative differences in pathways between ethnic groups. The composite gene-expression score was correlated with the time from onset of symptoms and nasal swab qPCR CT values (both p < 0.01) but was not related to participant age, gender, ethnicity or the presence or absence of chest X-ray abnormalities (all p > 0.05). Conclusions: The whole-blood transcriptome of COVID-19 has overall similarity with other respiratory infections but there are some unique pathways that merit further exploration to determine clinical relevance. The approach to a disease score may be of value, but needs further validation in a population with a greater range of disease severity.




Kwan, P. K. W., Cross, G. B., Naftalin, C. M., Ahidjo, B. A., Mok, C. K., Fanusi, F., … Paton, N. I. (2021). A blood RNA transcriptome signature for COVID-19. BMC Medical Genomics, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12920-021-01006-w

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