A group of researchers did a study that found that some people might have genes inherited from Neanderthals, reducing their risk of severe COVID-19 by 22 percent. These inherited genes are said to be more common in people of European and Asian descent. Neanderthals are a human species that became extinct about 40,000 years ago.
It is believed that Neanderthals passed on genetic material to modern humans through crossbreeding. Researchers believe that Neanderthal DNA makes up between one and two percent of the genome of people of European and Asian descent. While the percentage of DNA inherited from Neanderthals is small, the small amount of DNA could contain clues about the immune system’s response to pathogens.
The DNA advantage results from a single haplotype, a long block of DNA, on chromosome 12. This haplotype has previously protected people from West Nile, Hepatitis C and SARS. It can also help ensure some immunity to SARS-CoV-2, which shares many genetic similarities with the original strain of the virus.
In the study, the team relied on the genome of three Neanderthals, with the remains of two found in Siberia and one in Croatia. The DNA used dates from 50,000 to 120,000 years ago. The researchers compared the genomes of these samples to the DNA of thousands of people with severe COVID-19. The haplotype associated with less severe COVID-19 was found in all three Neanderthal genomes.
The haplotype in question specifically codes for proteins that activate enzymes that help break down RNA viruses. Oddly enough, while this particular haplotype helps fight COVID, the same researchers found in another study that a haplotype inherited from Neanderthals on chromosome 3 could increase the risk of respiratory failure due to COVID-19. This DNA gene cluster was discovered in the Neanderthals from Croatia.
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