Covid, Neanderthals and me

Covid, Neanderthals and me

April 27, 2022 4 By Rick

I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck Neanderthals and Covid-19 have to do with each other. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, I want to point out that I usually avoid writing about Covid-19 like the plague (pun intended). No matter what you write, you’re bound to piss off at least half the population, which is why this post doesn’t deal with the ongoing arguments about masks, vaccinations and the like. Are you with me so far? Great! We may be done with Covid but Covid isn’t done with us. At least that’s how it looks as yet another variation of the virus is sweeping through certain countries. I’ve been reading about new research that might provide an answer as to why I and many others haven’t caught this crap – so far! It seems it might be genetic. Although I eventually got all three jabs, it took more than a year to get my first one.

Mutations and resistance
It was long thought that infections depended on the genetic traits of the pathogen (an organism that causes disease). “There used to be a tendency to more think about the pathogen in terms of severity—it’s a severe pathogen or a mild pathogen. Relatively less attention was paid to a host and whether their genes affect their ability to fight off an infection, according to molecular virologist Johan Nordgren at Sweden’s Linköping University. More recently, scientists have been examining certain genes or regions of DNA that might be linked to specific diseases by comparing the genetic sequences of people who have been infected by Covid with those who are healthy to see if there’re any correlations between mutations and resistance.

A knuckle-dragging caveman?
During the long period before my first shot, I didn’t have a sniffle, sore throat, cold or fever, despite having spent a week in December 2019 among thousands of boisterous rugby fans at the Dubai 7s tournament. That covers a period from the outbreak in January 2020 to my first shot in May 2021. I hope I haven’t jinxed myself by writing about this. Only time will tell. I’ve been called a “knuckle-dragger, caveman and other similar names most of my life, so I was amazed to see a study stating that my +2% of Neanderthal heritage (confirmed in a National Geographic DNA survey I participated in) might have paid off. The gist of the study is as follows. Researchers have identified a haplotype (a set of genetic determinants located on a single chromosome) on chromosome 12 that we’ve inherited from Neanderthals. This haplotype reduces the relative risk of becoming severely ill with Covid-19 by approximately 22%. 

Sweden’s Karolinska Institute (KI)
As scientists work hard to decode the secrets of Covid-19, discover how the virus works and how the body fights to protect itself in response, a new study gives us a deep dive into this ongoing struggle between humans and infectious diseases. KI researchers led an international study that identified a gene variant protecting people against severe Covid-19. They did this by looking at people of diverse ancestries in their clinical trials. Here’s what they found. Genetics, old age and some underlying conditions play a role in whether some people become severely ill or only experience something more like a regular bout of flu. Previous studies that focused primarily on people of European ancestry revealed that individuals who had a specific segment of DNA enjoyed a 20% lower risk of contracting a severe case of Covid-19. The DNA segment in question comes from Neanderthals and is found in roughly 50% of all people outside Africa. There is a problem, however. This region of DNA is filled with many different genetic variants, making it difficult to pinpoint precisely which protective variant could potentially be used to treat severe Covid-19 cases. And here is where diversity played a critical role.

Different ancestries
As part of the quest to detect this gene variant, the study looked for people who carried only parts of this DNA segment, especially people with African ancestry, who lack Neanderthal heritage. Researchers reasoned that this would be an excellent way to identify this segment since people only inherited Neanderthal genes and most of this DNA segment after migrating out of Africa. There is, however, a minor piece of this DNA region that’s found in people of both European and African ancestries. When researchers discovered that people of primarily African ancestry displayed the same protection as individuals of European origin, they were able to identify a specific gene variant of interest. “The fact that individuals of African descent had the same protection allowed us to identify the unique variant in the DNA that actually protects from COVID-19 infection,” says Jennifer Huffman, the first author of the study and a researcher at the VA Boston Healthcare System in the U.S. 

International collaboration
During the pandemic, researchers worldwide have collaborated, enabling the study of genetic risk factors in a much broader range of people than ever before, even though most clinical research continues to focus on people of predominantly European ancestry. “This study shows how important it is to include individuals of different ancestries. If we had only studied one group, we would not have been successful in identifying the gene variant in this case,” according to the study’s corresponding author Hugo Zeberg, assistant professor at the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institute. “That we are beginning to understand the genetic risk factors in detail is key to developing new drugs against COVID-19,” added co-author Brent Richards, senior investigator at the Lady Davis Institute of the Jewish General Hospital and professor at McGill University in Canada. While the pandemic has caused much pain, suffering and inconvenience, it has also brought about better international cooperation when it comes to research. And, of course, more research into this is needed. Now, if we can keep on cooperating on other international fronts and areas, the world will be a much better place.