Neanderthal genes linked with severe COVID-19

James Marshall
November 23, 2020

Genes inherited from Neanderthal genomes may be responsible for some cases of severe Covid-19 disease, a team of German researchers reported on Wednesday.

The DNA strand is found on chromosome 3, and a team of researchers in Europe has linked certain variations in this sequence with the risk of being more severely ill with Covid-19.

Zeberg and Paabo, who work at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, noted that the prevalence of the particular Neanderthal gene group is highest in people from Bangladesh, where 63 per cent are estimated to carry a copy of the haplotype.

"Here, we show that the risk is conferred by a genomic segment ... that is inherited from Neanderthals and is carried by about 50% of people in South Asia and about 16% of people in Europe today".

They are nearly non-existent in Africa and East Asia.

"However, with respect to the current pandemic, it is clear that gene flow from Neanderthals has tragic consequences", Paabo and Zeberg concluded in their study. Although it appears that people who have this sliver of Neandertal DNA are at higher risk of a severe Covid-19 infection, there is no clue yet as to why the genetic variant leaves people more at risk.

Advanced age, being a man, and pre-existing medical problems can all increase the odds of a serious outcome. "Why this is must now be investigated as quickly as possible", Svante Pääbo, study author and director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

They found that a Neanderthal individual from southern Europe carried an nearly identical genetic segment, which spans some 50,000 so-called base pairs, the primary building blocks of DNA.

They also cited studies from the United Kingdom showing that people of Bangladeshi descent have roughly double the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared with the general population.

In a comment ahead of the study's final publication, Franke said one interesting question arising from the study is why that haploytpe - unlike most Neanderthal genes - survived until today.

In East Asia and Africa the gene variant is virtually absent. Studies estimate that about 2% of DNA in people of European and Asian descent can be traced back to Neanderthals.

Denisovan remnants are also widespread but more sporadic, comprising less than one percent of the DNA among Asians and Native Americans, and about five percent of aboriginal Australians and the people of Papua New Guinea.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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