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Neanderthal DNA Present in South Asians is a Risk Factor For COVID-19

People of South Asian descent possess a set of genes inherited from Neanderthals that makes them more susceptible to hospitalization from COVID-19, according to a study published in Nature

While certain risk factors affect the severity of COVID-19 – such as age and presence of underlying health conditions – the study noted that many still contract a severe case of COVID-19 without these risk factors, implying the existence of other risk factors in our genetics. Hugo Zeberg and Svante Paabo, the study’s authors, found a core haplotype (a group of genes inherited from a single parent) that increases the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 to occur at a 50 percent frequency in South Asian people. 

The same haplotype is almost absent in those of East Asian descent, occurs at only a 16 percent frequency in people from Europe, but occurs at a 63 percent frequency among Bangladeshi people in the United Kingdom, Zeberg and Paabo wrote. They said Bangladeshi people in the UK also have double the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the general population, indicating further disparities in healthcare that are compounded by the genetic predisposition identified in the study.  

Pie charts show the minor allele frequency at rs35044562. Frequency data were obtained from the 1000 Genomes Project. Map source data were obtained from OpenStreetMap. (Image from Nature Magazine)

The study comes as COVID-19 cases in India are on the rise and hospitals struggle to maintain the resources to deal with the onset of new cases. Despite being one of the world’s biggest producers of compressed oxygen, the country has dealt with a shortage of supplies due to delays in oxygen storage and production, which in turn exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis.

“With respect to the current pandemic, it is clear that gene flow from Neanderthals has tragic consequences,” Zeberg and Paabo wrote. 

The study states that the fact these genes have endured over the course of history to the present day indicates they must have been beneficial to human survival at some point in time.

“Thus, although this haplotype is detrimental for its carriers during the current pandemic, it may have been beneficial in earlier times in South Asia, perhaps by conferring protection against other pathogens, whereas it may have been eliminated in East Asia by negative selection,” the study states

However, Zeberg and Paabo found that the haplotype is notably absent in those of African descent because gene flow from Neanderthals into African populations at the time was “limited and probably indirect.”

“It is currently not known what feature in the Neanderthal-derived region confers risk for severe COVID-19 and whether the effects of any such feature are specific to SARS-CoV-2, to other coronaviruses, or to other pathogens,” they wrote. “Once the functional feature is elucidated, it may be possible to speculate about the susceptibility of Neanderthals to relevant pathogens.”

Cutting-edge research, like the one Zebery and Paabo conducted, is an important reminder that diversity in research and medicine provides a more comprehensive understanding of diverse populations and how to address their needs.


Isha Trivedi is a journalism student at George Washington University. She enjoys reading and listening to podcasts in her (limited) spare time.