Study: Neanderthal genes linked to severe COVID-19 risks, poorer outcomes

A new study suggests that if a person had a severe or deadly infection from the COVID-19 virus, it could mean they had a Neanderthal lurking in their family tree.

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A new study carried out in Bergamo, Italy, which had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita in the world, suggests that genes inherited from Neanderthals may have led to more severe cases of the virus, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Neanderthals are an extinct species of archaic humans who lived in Eurasia until about 40,000 years ago, according to The Natural History Museum.

Scientists realized early on in the pandemic that there was a link between DNA variations and severe COVID-19 infections, particularly Neanderthal DNA.

The study, published in the journal iScience and based on a sample of nearly 10,000 people in the Bergamo area, identified several genes associated with the development of severe respiratory illness.

According to researchers, three of those genes belonged to a group of variations in DNA, or haplotype, inherited from Neanderthals.

The Italian study found that people who carried the Neanderthal haplotype were twice as likely to develop severe pneumonia from a COVID-19 infection than those who didn’t.

A third of those in Bergamo who developed life-threatening COVID-19 infections had the Neanderthal haplotype, researchers said.

“This study shows there is a particular section of the human genome that is significantly associated with the risk of getting COVID-19 and of developing a severe form of it,” said Giuseppe Remuzzi, an infectious-disease expert and director of the Mario Negri Institute, who oversaw the research. “That section is more important than any others to explain why some fall seriously ill.”

The study was released as a new wave of COVID-19 is moving across the U.S. and the world.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ok’d the latest COVID-19 vaccine, one aimed at targeting the variants circulating around the U.S. now.

The vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have been updated to target the Omicron variant XBB.1.5, according to the FDA.

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