October 2, 2020 -- Having Neanderthal genes could be a risk factor for developing severe COVID-19, according to a new study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The study is an early release that has been accepted for publication but may be edited later.
Genetic variants in a region of chromosome 3 have been linked with respiratory failure in severe COVID-19. The genetic region is nearly identical to a Neanderthal from southern Europe who lived 50,000 years ago, the study authors found.
The genetic variant was transferred to humans through interbreeding about 60,000 years ago. Now about 50% of people in South Asia and 16% of people in Europe carry this section of DNA, the study authors said.
“It is striking that the genetic heritage from Neanderthals has such tragic consequences during the current pandemic,” Svante Paabo, one of the researchers and a genomics specialist at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Japan, said in a statement.
The COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative looked at more than 3,000 people, including patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 and patients who tested positive for the virus but weren’t hospitalized. The chromosome 3 region was linked with severe infection and hospitalization.
Based on the study, people who carry the Neanderthal variants have up to 3 times the risk of needing ventilation if infected with the virus.
“Obviously, factors such as your age and other diseases you may have also affect how severely you are affected by the virus. But among genetic factors, this is the strongest one,” Hugo Zeberg, one of the researchers and a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said in the statement.
Now Paabo and Zeberg want to study why the Neanderthal variants are associated with an increased risk of coronavirus infection and severe illness.
“This is something that we and others are now investigating as quickly as possible,” Paabo said.