Some Neandertal genes in people today may protect against severe COVID-19

Inherited DNA from our ancestors can play varying roles in immune response to disease

neandertal skeleton

Some DNA inherited from Neandertals (skeleton shown) may lower the risk of severe COVID-19, a new study finds.

Pascal Goetgheluck/Science Source

Some genetic variants inherited from Neandertals may protect against developing severe COVID-19. 

A new study looked at a stretch of DNA on chromosome 12 where a haplotype — a cluster of genetic variants that are inherited together — that affects susceptibility to the coronavirus is located. For each copy of the Neandertal haplotype a person inherited, the risk of needing intensive care fell approximately 22 percent, researchers report in the March 2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The variants may affect the activity or function of genes involved in a biochemical chain reaction that ends with the destruction of viral RNA, including the coronavirus’s. The protective variants are largely absent among people in sub-Saharan Africa, where few people carry genes inherited from Neandertals. About 25 to 30 percent of present-day people of Asian and European ancestry carry the protective variants. Some Black people in the Americas also inherited the protective haplotype, presumably from Asian, European or Native American ancestors.

Previously, researchers had found that a different haplotype on chromosome 3 that was inherited from Neandertals increases the risk of severe disease (SN:10/2/20). The results show that genetic inheritance can help or hinder the immune response to disease.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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