(p. A6) A stretch of DNA linked to Covid-19 was passed down from Neanderthals 60,000 years ago, according to a new study.
Scientists don’t yet know why this particular segment increases the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. But the new findings, which were posted online on Friday [July 3, 2020] and have not yet been published in a scientific journal, show how some clues to modern health stem from ancient history.
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Last month, researchers compared people in Italy and Spain who became very sick with Covid-19 to those who had only mild infections. They found two places in the genome associated with a greater risk. One is on Chromosome 9 and includes ABO, a gene that determines blood type. The other is the Neanderthal segment on Chromosome 3.
But these genetic findings are being rapidly updated as more people infected with the coronavirus are studied. Just last week, an international group of scientists called the Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative released a new set of data downplaying the risk of blood type. “The jury is still out on ABO,” said Mark Daly, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School who is a member of the initiative.
The new data showed an even stronger link between the disease and the Chromosome 3 segment. People who carry two copies of the variant are three times more likely to suffer from severe illness than people who do not.
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(p. A7) Tony Capra, a geneticist at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the study, thought it was plausible that the Neanderthal chunk of DNA originally provided a benefit — perhaps even against other viruses. “But that was 40,000 years ago, and here we are now,” he said.
It’s possible that an immune response that worked against ancient viruses has ended up overreacting against the new coronavirus. People who develop severe cases of Covid-19 typically do so because their immune systems launch uncontrolled attacks that end up scarring their lungs and causing inflammation.
Dr. Paabo said the DNA segment may account in part for why people of Bangladeshi descent are dying at a high rate of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom.
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(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 8, 2020, and has the title “DNA Inherited From Neanderthals May Increase Risk of Covid-19.”)
The unpublished paper, mentioned above, is: