As the Max Planck Society (MPG) writes in a recent communication, some people are much more affected by COVID-19 than others. Some reasons for this, such as old age, are already known, but other, as yet unknown factors also play a role.
Although the Neanderthal became extinct about 30,000 years ago, genes of the “relative” are still found in us humans today. According to experts, the genetic heritage influences risks for numerous diseases. And according to the latest findings, it can affect how severe a COVID-19 disease is. According to researchers, the risk of a severe form of the disease is up to three times higher in people with a certain Neanderthal gene variant.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 is still high. However, most people who become infected with the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 do not become severely ill. However, some infected persons experience severe disease progression. Researchers now report that Neanderthal genes can have an influence on the severity of COVID-19 disease.
COVID-19: influence of Neanderthal genes
This summer, a large-scale international study showed that a group of genes on chromosome 3 is associated with a higher risk of needing hospital treatment and artificial respiration in case of COVID-19 disease.
Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have now analyzed the gene cluster.
The two scientists have discovered that the DNA sequence in the variant of the gene cluster associated with a higher risk of severe COVID-19 is very similar to the DNA sequences of an approximately 50,000-year-old Neanderthal from Croatia and is derived from Neanderthals.
Gene cluster analyzed
“It has been shown that modern humans inherited this gene variant from the Neanderthals when they mixed together about 60,000 years ago,” explains Zeberg. “The probability that people who have inherited this gene variant have to be artificially ventilated in the case of an infection with the novel coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 is about three times higher”.
It is particularly common in people in South Asia, where about half of the population carries the Neanderthal variant in its genome. In Europe, one in six people has inherited the high-risk variant, while in Africa and East Asia it is almost non-existent, according to the researchers.
Risk variant with varying degrees of distribution
The study, which was published in the scientific journal “Nature”, also shows considerable differences in the distribution of this genetic risk variant in different parts of the world.
However, the study does not provide any explanation as to why people with this gene variant have a higher risk. “It is appalling that the genetic heritage of Neanderthals has had such tragic effects during the current pandemic. Why this is so must now be researched as quickly as possible,” says Svante Pääbo, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (ad)
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