Commentary COVID-19

Debunked: RFK Jr. Claims COVID is ‘Ethnically Targeted’

Recent statements from 2024 Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have drawn great public attention. Speaking at a press event in New York City, he claimed that COVID-19 “disproportionately attacks certain races,” particularly Caucasians and Black people, with Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese being seemingly more immune. Kennedy attributed these disparities to genetic variations of the host cell receptor, ACE2, a key player in the virus’s infectious cycle. He insinuated that this is proof that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was a biological weapon designed to target certain ethnicities. But how sound are these alarming claims?

First, let’s look at the specific study Kennedy linked to on Twitter to validate his claim. The paper investigated the correlation between allele frequencies of certain ACE2 variants and their predicted effects on its ability to bind the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, a crucial step in the infectious cycle of the virus. For instance, the p.Met383Thr and p.Asp427Tyr variants, which the article alleges are linked to worse COVID outcomes, have frequencies of just 0.003% and 0.01%, respectively. Their rarity suggests that they are unlikely to meaningfully affect large population groups. Not only are these variants incredibly rare, but they are also based on alleles associated with adverse outcomes for SARS-CoV-1, not SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, the information from this study should not be directly applied to the current pandemic and certainly cannot prove an ethnic targeting of the virus.

Another critical study that disproves Kennedy’s claim revolves around ACE2 variants but examines them in relation to SARS-CoV-2 susceptibility, unlike the former study. Even in this research, the ACE2 variants that could affect susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 are extremely rare, with maximum prevalence values ranging from 0.00003 to 0.006. For example, an ACE2 variant that was found to increase spike protein binding was found at a frequency of only 3 in 10,000 Latino/Admixed American samples. Consequently, the low occurrence rates of these variants indicates that their impact on broad racial or ethnic groups is statistically insignificant when it comes to widespread racial or ethnic susceptibility.

Upon close examination, it’s clear that Kennedy’s claims lack robust scientific backing. While it’s true that COVID-19 has impacted different communities in different ways, it’s not due to any supposed “genetic targeting” inherent in the virus. Instead, this disparity arises from a multitude of factors, including access to healthcare, occupation types, living conditions, systemic racial disparities in healthcare, and perhaps biological variations unrelated to host cell receptor ACE2.

The assertion that COVID-19 is “ethnically targeted” is not only scientifically unsound but also has the potential to sow confusion and fear among the public. As we continue to grapple with this global health crisis, let’s keep the discourse grounded in verifiable science and promote unity rather than divisive misinformation.

  • Hou, Y., Zhao, J., Martin, W., Kallianpur, A., Chung, M. K., Jehi, L., Sharifi, N., Erzurum, S., Eng, C., & Cheng, F. (2020). New insights into genetic susceptibility of COVID-19: An ACE2 and TMPRSS2 polymorphism analysis. BMC Medicine, 18(1), 216.
  • Levine, J. (2023, July 15). RFK Jr. Says COVID was “ethnically targeted” to spare Jews. New York Post.
  • MacGowan, S. A., Barton, M. I., Kutuzov, M., Dushek, O., Van Der Merwe, P. A., & Barton, G. J. (2022). Missense variants in human ACE2 strongly affect binding to SARS-CoV-2 Spike providing a mechanism for ACE2 mediated genetic risk in Covid-19: A case study in affinity predictions of interface variants. PLOS Computational Biology, 18(3), e1009922.

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