Genes that some people have inherited from their Neanderthal ancestors may increase the likelihood of suffering severe forms of COVID-19, according to scientists. A study by European scientists published Wednesday by the journal Nature identifies a cluster of genes that are linked to a higher risk of hospitalization and respiratory failure in patients who are infected with the coronavirus.
Researchers Hugo Zeberg and Svante Paabo determined that the genes belong to a group, or haplotype, which likely came from Neanderthals. The haplotype is found in about 16% of the population in Europe and half the population in South Asia, while in Africa and East Asia it is non-existent.
Modern humans and Neanderthals are known to have interbred at various points in history, resulting in an exchange of genes than can still be found today.
The genes are one of several risk factors for COVID-19, including age, sex and pre-existing conditions like obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
The researchers, who work at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, say the prevalence of the particular Neanderthal gene group is highest in people from Bangladesh, where 63% are estimated to carry a copy of the haplotype.
They cite studies from the U.K. showing that people of Bangladeshi descent have about two times higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than the general population.
"It is striking that the genetic heritage from the Neandertals has such tragic consequences during the current pandemic," Paabo said in a statement. "Why this is must now be investigated as quickly as possible."