Genetic variants that are associated with the risk of severe cases of covid-19 may have been inherited from Neanderthals. This is the conclusion of an article published this week in the scientific journal Nature. But this is only one of the risk factors for serious illness – others include, for example, old age and pre-existing illnesses.
After all, what is the risk factor that may have been inherited from Neanderthals? Let’s see, previous research had already identified a group of genes on chromosome 3 (the largest of the 23 chromosome pairs found in humans) that was linked to respiratory failure after contracting an infection from the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. By studying ancient genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans (groups of humans already extinct), a team of scientists – including Svante Pääbo, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany – came to discover that genetic variants in this region are derived from a large group of genes called “haplotype” that was inherited from Neanderthals.
In a summary of the work, the team explains that this haplotype is “closely linked” to Neanderthals who lived in today’s Croatia 50,000 years ago. “This haplotype is present in about 16% of the population in Europe and in 50% of people in South Asia”, informs the team. The highest frequency was found in Bangladesh, where it is estimated that 63% of the population has at least one copy of this haplotype.
The authors also report that the variable prevalence of this haplotype may contribute to differences in the severity of covid-19 observed in different populations. As such, they exemplify that individuals in the United Kingdom of Bangladeshi descent have twice the risk of dying from covid-19 than the general population. Svante Paabo said, quoted by the Lusa agency, that it is “remarkable that the genetic heritage of Neanderthals has such tragic consequences during the current pandemic”, arguing that it is necessary to “investigate as soon as possible” as to why this happens.
The ancestors of modern humans crossed at various times in the history of evolution with Neanderthals, which resulted in an exchange of genes that still remain today.