SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, impacts people in different ways after infection. Some experience only mild or no symptoms at all, while others become sick enough to require hospitalization and may develop respiratory failure and die. Now, researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) in Japan and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany have found that a group of genes that reduces the risk of a person becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 by approximately 20% is inherited from Neanderthals. “Of course, other factors such as advanced age or underlying conditions such as diabetes have a significant impact on how ill an infected individual may become,” said Professor Svante Pääbo, PhD, who leads the Human Evolutionary Genomics Unit (https://groups.oist.jp/heg) at OIST. “But genetic factors also play an important role and some of these have been contributed to present-day people by Neanderthals.” Last year, Professor Pääbo and his colleague Professor Hugo Zeberg reported in Nature (https://www.oist.jp/news-center/press-releases/ancient-neanderthal-hand-severe-covid-19) that the greatest genetic risk factor so far identified, doubling the risk to develop severe COVID-19 when infected by the virus, had been inherited from Neanderthals. Their latest research builds on a new study, published in December last year from the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC) consortium in the UK, which collected genome sequences of 2,244 people who developed severe COVID-19. This UK study pinpointed additional genetic regions on four chromosomes that impact how individuals respond to the virus.
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