Neanderthal gene variant associated with higher risk of developing severe COVID-19

A new research has revealed that a part of DNA, which causes their carriers to have almost three times higher risk of developing severe COVID-19, is inherited from Neanderthals. The study has been published in the Nature journal.

Neanderthal gene variant associated with higher risk of developing severe COVID-19
Hugo Zeberg. Image Credit: Private.

The research work was performed by scientists from Karolinska Institute and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The COVID-19 infection affects certain people more severely than other individuals. While some reasons for this, like old age, have already been established, there are still unknown factors that play a vital role. This summer, a major international research linked a gene cluster on chromosome 3 to an increased risk of respiratory failure and hospitalization following infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Inherited by modern humans

Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo from Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany have now described that the version of the gene cluster linked to a greater risk of severe COVID-19 is quite analogous to the equivalent DNA sequences of a roughly 50,000-year-old Neanderthal from Croatia, and indubitably comes from Neanderthals.

It turns out that this gene variant was inherited by modern humans from the Neanderthals when they interbred some 60,000 years ago. Today, 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.”

Hugo Zeberg, Researcher, Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute

Most common in South Asia

The research also uncovers significant differences in how common the genetic risk variant is in various parts of the world. It is specifically common among South Asian people with around 50% of the population carrying the Neanderthal risk variant. In Europe alone, one in six individuals carry the genetic risk variant, whereas in East Asia and Africa, it is almost non-existent.

The research does not offer any explanation as to why this genetic variant carries a higher risk.

It is striking that the genetic heritage from the Neanderthals has such tragic consequences during the current pandemic. Why this is must now be investigated as quickly as possible.”

Svante Pääbo, Director, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Journal reference:

Zeberg, H & Pääbo, S (2020) The major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neanderthals. Nature.


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