A team of Neanderthal genetics experts examined a strand of DNA linked to some of the more serious cases of Covid-19 and compared it to sequences known to have been passed on to living Europeans and Asians from Neanderthal ancestors.
The DNA strand is on chromosome 3, and a team of researchers in Europe has linked certain variations of this sequence to the risk of more severe disease from Covid-19.
“It turns out that this variant gene was inherited from the Neanderthals by modern humans when they crossed about 60,000 years ago,”
“Nowadays, people who have inherited this gene variant need artificial respiration three times more often if they are infected with the novel coronavirus Sars-CoV-2.”
Paabo and Zeberg found similar variations in the DNA of a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton found in Croatia and some of them in skeletons found in Siberia.
Studies have shown that modern humans mingled with Neanderthals and a related species, the Denisovans, tens of thousands of years ago. Studies estimate that about 2% of the DNA in people of European and Asian ancestry can be traced back to Neanderthals.
“It is currently not known which trait in the Neanderthal-derived region carries the risk of severe Covid-19 and whether the effects of such a trait are specific to SARS-CoV-2, other coronaviruses or other pathogens,” the researchers wrote.
“There’s really nothing medically or biologically special about the fact that this variant originated in Neanderthals,” said Dr. Jeffrey Barret, a geneticist at the UK’s Sanger Institute who was not involved in the study, told CNN.
“Humans are of great genetic diversity, some of which originated in our pre-human ancestors, some in Neanderthals, some during the time when all ancient people lived in Africa, and some more recently.”
Barret said this particular stretch of DNA explains only a small percentage of the differences in disease severity in coronavirus patients.
“With regard to the current pandemic, however, it is clear that the gene flow of Neanderthals has tragic consequences,” concluded Paabo and Zeberg in their study.
CNN’s Katie Hunt contributed to this report.