Neanderthal genes could cause severe COVID reaction: Study

Gabriela Arevalo
October 02, 2020 - 4:26 pm

    Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists have struggled to figure out why some people are able to shake off the virus with mild or nonexistent symptoms, while others have their systems ravaged or even die from it.

    Now a new study suggests that the reason may lie in our genes. Researchers in Germany published a study this week in Nature that links a strand of DNA, which is found on the third chromosome and is a relic from Neanderthal ancestors, to severe cases of COVID-19.

    Svante Paabo and Hugo Zeberg of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology wrote that the risk of a more severe reaction to coronavirus could be linked to 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.”

    The experts on Neanderthal genetics wrote that “the people who inherited this gene variant are three times more likely to need artificial ventilation if they are infected by the novel coronavirus Sars-CoV-2.”

    Around 2% of people of Asian and European descent have Neanderthal ancestors. Studies indicate that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans, a related species, tens of thousands of years ago, reports CNN.

    Dr. Jeffrey Barret, a geneticist at the Sanger Institute in Britain, says that “there really isn't anything medically or biologically special about the fact that this variant arose in Neanderthals,” and that the differences in the severity of coronavirus patients’ reactions to the illness can only partially be explained by the DNA findings.

    “The genes in this region may well have protected the Neanderthals against some other infectious diseases that are not around today. And now, when we are faced with the novel coronavirus these Neanderthal genes have these tragic consequences,” said Paabo.

    The Guardian reports that the Neanderthal genes in question have been linked to the body’s immune response and the mechanism that COVID-19 uses to enter human cells.

    Paabo believes that around 100,000 “additional” people have died from coronavirus due to the genes.

    However, not all Neanderthal genes have been detrimental to humans, and the researchers say that they most likely persisted because they were beneficial for a variety of reasons, from reducing the risk of miscarriage to increasing sensitivity to pain. “This has been a double-edged sword,” said Zeberg.

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