Last year, researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany showed that a major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neandertals. Now the same researchers show, in a study published in PNAS, that Neandertals also contributed a protective variant. Half of all people outside Africa carry a Neandertal gene variant that reduces the risk of needing intensive care for COVID-19 by 20 percent.
“This shows that our heritage from Neandertals is a double-edged sword when it comes to our response to SARS-CoV-2. They have given us variants that we can both curse and thank them for,” says Hugo Zeberg, researcher at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
The study also shows that the protective variant from Neandertals has increased in frequency since the last Ice Age so that it is now carried by about half of all people outside Africa.
“It is striking that this Neandertal gene variant has become so common in many parts of the world. This suggests that it has been favourable in the past,” says Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “It is also striking that two genetic variants inherited from Neandertals influence COVID-19 outcomes in opposite directions. Their immune system obviously influences us in both positive and negative ways today.””
The research was funded by the NOMIS Foundation and the Max Planck Society.