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Neanderthal descendants get COVID protection

Wednesday February 17th 2021

Descendants of Neanderthals may enjoy some genetic protection against the COVID-19 virus, according to a new scientific study.

Researchers pinpointed a genetic group that reduces the risk of developing severe disease by 20% - and then came it came from Homo Sapiens’ ancestral rival.

Interbreeding led to it reaching modern humans about 60,000 years ago – and is now found in about half the population outside Africa, according to Japanese, Swedish and German researchers.

The discovery may help explain some of the ethnic disparities in responses to the virus.

The analysis, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved genomic sequences collected from about 2,244 severely ill patients in the UK.

The variant on chromosome 12 has been found in DNA from three Neanderthals discovered in different parts of the world and dating from different eras.

The Swedish researchers said the finding is counteracted by an earlier study showing a factor on chromosome 3 that increases the risk of respiratory failure and is also inherited from Neanderthals.

Researcher Professor Svante Pääbo, of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, Japan, and the Max Planck Institute, Germany, said: “It’s quite amazing that despite Neanderthals becoming extinct around 40,000 years ago, their immune system still influences us in both positive and negative ways today.

“It seems that the enzymes encoded by the Neanderthal variant are more efficient, reducing the chance of severe consequences to SARS-CoV-2 infections.”

Professor Pääbo added: “It is also striking that two genetic variants inherited from Neandertals influence COVID-19 outcomes in opposite directions. Their immune system obviously influences us in both positive and negative ways today.”

Researcher Hugo Zeberg, of the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, said: “This shows that our heritage from Neandertals is a double-edged sword when it comes to our response to SARS-CoV-2. They have given us variants that we can both curse and thank them for.”

A genomic region associated with protection against severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neandertals. PNAS 16 February 2021; doi: 10.1073/pnas.2026309118

[abstract]

Tags: Asia | Europe | Flu & Viruses | Genetics | UK News

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