Scientists say genes that some people have inherited from their Neanderthal ancestors may increase their likelihood of suffering severe forms of COVID-19. A study by European scientists published Wednesday by the journal Nature examined a cluster of genes that have been linked to a higher risk of hospitalization and respiratory failure in patients who are infected with the new coronavirus. Researchers Hugo Zeberg and Svante Paabo determined that the genes belong to a group, or haplotype, which likely came from Neanderthals, the AP reports. The haplotype is found in about 16% of the population in Europe and half the population in South Asia, while in Africa and East Asia it is nonexistent.
Modern humans and Neanderthals are known to have interbred at various points in history, resulting in an exchange of genes than can still be found today. The genes are one of several risk factors for COVID-19, including age and pre-existing conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. Zeberg and Paabo noted that the prevalence of the particular Neanderthal gene group is highest in people from Bangladesh, where 63% are estimated to carry a copy of the haplotype. They cited studies from the UK showing that people of Bangladeshi descent have about two times higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than the general population. “It is striking that the genetic heritage from the Neanderthals has such tragic consequences during the current pandemic," Paabo said.
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