A European study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature identified a genetic segment on chromosome 3 that is inherited from Neanderthals and that exposes its carriers to an increased risk of serious covid-19 disease.
In Europe, for example, 16% of people are carriers of these variants and in South Asia that percentage reaches 50% – in Bangladesh, the authors say, 63% of the population is a carrier. In Africa and East Asia, on the other hand, there are almost no such genetic variants in their respective populations.
The study is by Hugo Zeberg, from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and by Svante Pääbo, from the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology of Evolution.
The latter was the one who published the complete neardertal genome in 2010, confirming once and for all that there were even genetic exchanges between those extinct human beings about 35 thousand years ago and the homo sapiens, the modern human species.
It is precisely this ancient genetic heritage that now crosses the pandemic by the new coronavirus with negative effects for its carriers.
Genetic variants on chromosome 3 inherited from Neanderthals thus join the list of other risk factors for SARS-CoV-2 infection, such as age, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, disability of vitamin D or obesity.
The two researchers had already advanced this hypothesis in July, after having analyzed a genetic segment of chromosome 3 in more than 3,000 patients hospitalized with covid-19, and having compared it with the same region of the Neanderthal genome. But at the time, there was no certainty.
Since then, Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo have deepened the study and now have new data that confirm the hypothesis, but offer no explanation for this three times greater risk of more serious covid-19 infection, due to genetic variants ” Neanderthals about 50 thousand years ago “, as Hugo Zeberg underlined.
Svante Pääbo considers, for his part, “remarkable that the genetic heritage of Neanderthals has such tragic consequences in the current pandemic” and argues that it is necessary to “investigate as soon as possible” the reason why this happens.