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Coronavirus genetic risk factor inherited from Neanderthals – new study

Patients carrying a specific DNA sequence inherited from Neanderthals, a prehistoric human population that lived in Eurasia between 200,000 and 35,000 years ago, are more likely to develop a severe form of COVID-19, two Swedish scientists discovered.

“A little over a week ago, a vast amount of data about the genetic profile of hospitalized patients from different parts of the world was released,” Hugo Zeberg, an expert in Neanderthal genome from the Department of Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, told The Jerusalem Post.

“We noticed that a certain DNA variant whose presence increases the likelihood of severe symptoms very closely matched with a segment from the Neanderthal genome.”

The preliminary results of the research were published on Friday on bioRxiv, a free online archive and distribution service for unpublished preprints in the life sciences field. Co-author of the paper with Zeberg is Svante Paabo, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who is considered one of the founders of the field of paleogenetics.

Almost 3,200 genetic profiles of hospitalized patients were analyzed, showing that those presenting the relevant DNA variant were 70% more likely to develop a severe form of the disease.

Until relatively recently, scientists believed that the different human species lived on the planet in sequence, with zero or very little overlap. In the past few years, new discoveries and studies have proved that not only did some groups coexist for significant stretches of time, but they also interbred, at least partially, as proved by the DNA sequences from Neanderthals but also Denisovans that are present in modern humans, also known as homo sapiens.

Zeberg pointed out that approximately 6% of the population in Europe and half of the individuals in South Asia carry the Neanderthal variant associated with severe COVID-19, which on the other hand is rare in East Asia and Africa.

“Researchers had already observed that this specific DNA variant is associated with developing a more acute form of the disease, but nobody had realized that this sequence is close to the one in the Neanderthal genome,” he said.

“At this stage, this is simply observation. Many people are studying this variant, its meaning and why it is connected to COVID-19. More results will come from work and collaborations of scientists in many fields,” he concluded.

“For now, I think it is important to highlight that this Neanderthal-inherited DNA sequence has had very important consequences in the coronavirus crisis.”

“This paper presents two interesting aspects,” Dr. Hila May of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research told the Post.

“First of all, it shows us that for understanding risk factors of current diseases, we should also relate to human evolution and development, which is important to know more about why we get sick and why some people are sicker than others, as well as to help find treatments. Moreover, with further study this finding may help us to reveal why Neanderthals disappeared.”

Original: Rossella Tercatin – JPost