DNA inherited from Neanderthals could put some at higher COVID-19 risk

A part of the Neanderthals remains with us today in our genes. Now, scientists believe six genes passed down over 60,000 years ago could put some at higher risk. If you happen to have the genes on the “Chromosome 3 segment,” you may be more likely to develop severe illness. More research is needed to confirm the study.

The gene segment is almost nonexistent in Africa. In Europe, 8 percent of the population has it, while only 4 percent have it in East Asia. Meanwhile, the genes are most common in Bangladesh, reaching as high as 63 percent. Unfortunately, this could put people from South Asia at higher risk, and scientists aren’t sure why.

Research from UK hospitals shows that people from a south Asian background had a mortality rate of 20 percent higher than the white population. The research suggests part of the reason is that British people from south Asia have a higher rate of diabetes.

Genes, disease, and social inequality

Several other studies found that black Britons are also at greater risk than the white population, reports the Guardian. Similarly, black Americans are at more risk due to factors like social inequality, rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, and systemic racism.

In addition to these factors, scientists believe genes may play a role. Recently, an international group of scientists downplayed the role of blood type as a risk factor. Now, they are focusing on Chromosome 3 and the inherited Neanderthal genes.

Hugo Zeberg, a geneticist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, is one of the co-authors of the study.

“Dr. Zeberg looked at Chromosome 3 in an online database of Neanderthal genomes. He found that the version that raises people’s risk of severe Covid-19 is the same version found in a Neanderthal who lived in Croatia 50,000 years ago,” writes Carl Zimmer for the New York Times.

The evolution of 60,000-year-old genes

Now, the scientists are trying to determine how the genes evolved and dispersed after humans left Africa and began interbreeding with Neanderthals. Although they died out for unknown reasons, Neanderthal’s genes lived on and helped us survive. 

In some cases, the Neanderthal genes appear to give us an evolutionary advantage, such as the case of women’s fertility.

However, when it comes to coronavirus, the researchers suspect that what worked so long ago may now be detrimental.

“It’s possible that an immune response that worked against ancient viruses has ended up overreacting against the new coronavirus. People who develop severe cases of Covid-19 typically do so because their immune systems launch uncontrolled attacks that end up scarring their lungs and causing inflammation,” writes Zimmer.

Now, it will take studying ancient Neanderthal fossils to reveal more clues.

Related: The Trump administration has eased up restrictions on air pollution amid a respiratory disease pandemic

Featured image: Neandertala homo, modelo en Neand-muzeo by UNiesert via Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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