Rapid Blood Test Uses DNA to Predict Which COVID-19 Patients Are Highest Risk

Nurse drawing a patient's blood.

Olga Efimova / EyeEm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers found that a simple blood test can help predict which patients with COVID-19 are at high risk for complications.
  • Scientists were able to accurately pinpoint patients that had unfavorable outcomes.
  • The test isn’t available yet, but may be available in the future.

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have started the process of creating a blood test to predict which COVID-19 patients could be at highest risk of severe complications from the virus.

Scientists discovered that a simple and rapid blood test can predict within a day of a patient being admitted to the hospital, whether they are at a high risk of severe complications or even death. The researchers published their findings on January 14 in the journal JCI Insight.

For the study, scientists analyzed blood samples from 97 patients who were admitted to a hospital with COVID-19. They specifically looked for mitochondrial DNA, which are inflammatory markers released by damaged organs.

The researchers discovered that patients who eventually died or required ICU admission, intubation, or other serious treatments had “highly elevated” levels of mitochondrial DNA. The link persisted even after scientists adjusted for factors like age, sex, and comorbidities.

The researchers even discovered that mitochondrial DNA was an important indicator compared to other, more established ways of measuring inflammation in the body.

“Doctors need better tools to evaluate the status of COVID-19 patients as early as possible because many of the treatments—such as monoclonal antibodies—are in short supply, and we know that some patients will get better without intensive treatments,” co-senior author Andrew E. Gelman, PhD, said in a press release.

What This Means For You

A blood test to determine whether you’re at high risk for COVID-19 complications could lead to earlier interventions and ultimately help keep you safe. While it’s not available at the moment, it could be available in the future.

How the Test Would Be Used

The researchers say that the test could be used to detect and potentially predict COVID-19 severity as soon as patients are hospitalized. It could also help design clinical trials and identify patients who might benefit more from specific treatments. The test may even help serve as a way to monitor the effectiveness of new treatments.

“We will need larger trials to verify what we found in this study, but if we could determine in the first 24 hours of admission whether a patient is likely to need dialysis or intubation or medication to keep their blood pressure from dropping too low, that would change how we triage the patient, and it might change how we manage them much earlier in the disease course,” said co-senior author Hrishikesh S. Kulkarni, MD, in the press release.

What Experts Think

The test is in its infancy, and it’s important to remember that, John Sellick, DO, MS an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo/SUNY, tells Verywell. He points out that stored blood specimens were used in this instance. “They have to repeat this in ‘real-time,’” he says.

Still, Sellick says that the goal is “always to try to do something ‘different’ if you know the patient is at higher risk of a bad outcome.” While COVID-19 patients are typically managed “aggressively” when they’re hospitalized, Sellick says a test like this may be helpful in the emergency room “where the decision to admit or send home may not be clear.”

Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, agrees, telling Verywell that a test like this could lead to patients getting “closer monitoring and not being discharged too soon.”

Overall, Sellick says, “a reliable test that points out the high-risk people might help.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Scozzi D, Cano M, Ma L, et al. Circulating mitochondrial DNA is an early indicator of severe illness and mortality from COVID-19JCI Insight. January 14, 2021. doi:10.1172/jci.insight.143299

  2. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Rapid blood test identifies COVID-19 patients at high risk of severe disease.

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.