While researchers are working to advance drugs to treat COVID-19 and vaccines to give people immunity against the virus, the mental health impact of the pandemic will also have to be managed. This is where PGx testing may be most useful, experts in the field said.
"It is worthwhile to consider not just the utility of PGx in preventing hospitalization or changing the course of COVID-19 care," but also the impact it could have on managing "the burden on the patients that do survive a COVID-19 infection … [and] those that are suffering from the isolation of social distancing, as well as the financial hardships," said David Thacker, a clinical pharmacogenetics content specialist at Translational Software.
According to a recent JAMA editorial, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, there was a greater incidence of post-traumatic stress syndrome and psychological distress among patients and doctors. In communities impacted by Hurricane Ike in 2008, around 5% of individuals met the criteria for major depressive disorder, while one in 10 adults in New York City had symptoms of the disorder after 9/11.
"In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears likely that there will be substantial increases in anxiety and depression, substance use, loneliness, and domestic violence; and with schools closed, there is a very real possibility of an epidemic of child abuse," wrote Sandro Galea from Boston University School of Public Health, Raina Merchant from the Perelman School of Medicine, and Nicole Lurie from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in Norway.
A survey in March by the American Psychiatric Association found that more than a third of polled individuals said that the pandemic was seriously impacting their mental health, nearly half said they were scared about getting the virus, and 62% said they feared a loved one would get it. Meanwhile, calls to substance abuse and mental health help lines increased eightfold from February to March.
As the pandemic continues, people may increasingly turn to medications to deal with the psychological wounds left by the pandemic. Drugs to treat mental health conditions, including major depressive disorder, are some of the most widely prescribed drugs in the U.S., but they're also highly variable and associated with unwanted side effects.
As such, one of the main areas where PGx testing has seen uptake is for personalizing psychiatry drugs. Myriad Genetics recently published a meta-analysis involving more than 1,500 patients with major depressive disorder who were enrolled in four studies, which showed that patients who received treatment based on PGx information had significantly better outcomes than those who did not.
Although PGx testing in psychiatry is not without its naysayers, doctors may reach for such testing if the use of mental health drugs increases during or after the pandemic. Genomind, a mental health-focused PGx testing company, recently took a number of steps to make it easier for physicians to deliver psychiatric care during the pandemic. Doctors can order Genomind's PGx test and send a saliva collection kit to patient's homes, which can then be mailed to the lab for analysis. Through Genomind, doctors also have access to Sharecare's HIPAA-compliant telemedicine platform for free until September, which they can use to remotely see patients and discuss PGx test results, if ordered.
"The utility of PGx during the COVID-19 crisis is more important than ever," a spokesperson for the company said. "This service is helping enable critical mental health treatment during the pandemic and Genomind is doing its best to enable as many mental health professionals as possible."
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Genomeweb.