Known as the original cavemen and cavewomen to inhabit this earth, Neanderthals are considered to be one of the closest ancestors to humans. New research now suggests their existence, and more specifically, their DNA could partake in a major COVID-19 breakthrough. In a paper published in Nature, researchers are suggesting that the presence of a particular Neanderthal inherited gene could be responsible for the severe respiratory failure of those suffering from COVID-19.
Around fifty thousand years ago, humans bred with Neanderthals thus causing the mixture of DNA between the two. As of now, about 16% of Europeans, 50% of South Asians, and more than 66% of the Bangladesh population have inherited Neanderthal DNA. Early research identified key DNA sequences associated with severe COVID-19 infection. Using this information, and information of the 1000 Genomes Project, researchers confirmed that a cluster of genes on chromosome 3, which is associated with high-risk of COVID-19 complications, is related to Neanderthal descent. The chromosome 3 genes functioned in deteriorating respiratory function causing those with this gene to be three times more likely to need artificial ventilation. It has also been found that people of Bangladesh descent in the UK are two times more likely to die from COVID-19. Bangladeshis having this greater risk while also having the greatest Neanderthal gene frequency further supports this finding.
Remarkably, this gene has been found to have a positive effect in protecting against other unnamed pathogens. However, when it comes to coronavirus, the gene appears to have a negative effect causing even more harm than good. Because the study is the first of its kind, and data are still limited, scientists do not understand why the gene is beneficial in some contexts while harmful in others.
All in all, this finding confirms there are genetic factors influencing the severity of COVID-19. This research could answer why the virus impacts some severely and others not as much. That being said, there are numerous other environmental and social factors influencing the risk of COVID-19. This is just another breakthrough in knowledge about the virus that has impacted everyone.