Neanderthal DNA makes Covid-19 worse – NRC


A genetic variant that is clearly associated with a higher risk of complications from Covid-19 appears to be from Neanderthals. In a study that Nature put online on Wednesday, geneticists Hugi Zeberg and Svante Pääbo write that they have found the involved ‘risk area’ of more than 300,000 base pairs on chromosome 3 in the genome of a Neanderthal who lived about 50,000 years ago .

Several DNA variants have been found in recent months that are associated with a more serious course of Covid-19. The Neanderthal variant on chromosome 3 has no effect on comprehensibility, but those who contract Covid-19 will be admitted to hospital faster with this variant.

The Neanderthal variant increases the risk of hospitalization with Covid-19 by about 60 percent. This is comparable to the difference in risk with asthma, or the risk difference between people in their thirties and forties on hospitalization with Covid. The gene variant also explains only a small part of the risk differences between people. For example, an eighty-year-old has an eight times higher risk of hospitalization for corona than a twenties. Diabetes increases the chance of hospitalization three times, severe obesity (BMI> 39) four and a half times.

Six genes at risk

It is not yet clear why the DNA variant increases the risk of complications with Covid-19, or even whether the adverse effect may also extend to other diseases. At risk are six known genes, but it is not clear what they have to do with the course of Covid-19. Two of them are active in the lung tissue.

In total, there are over 250 variations, or haplotypes, for the affected region on chromosome 3 in the current human population. A haplotype is a coherent group of mutations. The Neanderthal variant (covering a total of 13 point mutations) is virtually absent in Africa. This is normal for Neanderthal DNA, because the mixing between Neanderthals and modern humans took place outside Africa about 70,000 years ago. In Europe this specific variant occurs in eight percent of the population, in South Asia it is thirty percent.

The situation in Bangladesh is special, Zeberg and Pääbo write, because they found a distribution of this DNA variant of no less than 63 percent. This must almost mean that among that population this variant once offered an advantage and therefore more chance of progeny and therefore greater distribution. Perhaps this haplotype once increased resistance to a completely different disease, Zeberg and Pääbo suggest.

In a news report in the American Journal of medical genetics, Hugo Zeberg says that in the United Kingdom it had already been noticed that British of Bangladeshi descent had a higher risk of dying from Covid-19. In Bangladesh itself, this increased risk may not be noticeable at all, says Zeberg, because “age is the most important risk factor and Bangladesh has a very young population. The pandemic has barely even hit the country. ” In this context, it is also striking that the variant hardly occurs in East Asia. Perhaps Covid-like diseases had been raging there for much longer, so that the Neanderthal variant was selected out of there.

On average people from outside Africa have one and a half to three percent of Neanderthal DNA in their genome, slightly more in Asia than in Europe. But those percentages can differ greatly per haplotype. Zeberg recently discovered a Neanderthal variant that makes women slightly more fertile. This appeared to occur in thirty percent of European women.

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