A recent study found that in addition to risk factors such as advanced age and chronic diseases like diabetes, genetic heritage also contributes to individual risk for COVID-19 severity. The study was published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS).
In the fall of 2020, Hugo Zeberg from Karolinska Institutet and MPI-EVA and Svante Paabo from MPI-EVA showed that we have inherited the main genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 from Neanderthals. In the spring of 2021, the same duo of researchers studied this variant in ancient human DNA and observed that its frequency has increased significantly since the last ice age. In fact, it has become surprisingly common for a genetic variant inherited from Neanderthals. Therefore, it may have had a favorable impact on its carriers in the past. “This major genetic risk factor for COVID-19 is so common that I started wondering if it could actually be good for something, like providing protection against another infectious disease,” said Hugo Zeberg, who is the sole author of the study.
The genetic risk factor is located in a region of chromosome 3 which is made up of many genes. There are several genes in its vicinity that code for immune system receptors. One of these receptors – CCR5 – is used by the HIV virus to infect white blood cells. Zeberg found that people with the risk factor for COVID-19 had fewer CCR5 receptors. This led him to test whether they also had a lower risk of being infected with HIV. By analyzing patient data from three major biobanks (FinnGen, UK Biobank and Michigan Genomic Initiative), he found that carriers of the risky variant of COVID-19 had a 27% lower risk of contracting HIV.
“It shows how a genetic variant can be both good and bad news: bad news if someone gets COVID-19, good news because it offers protection against HIV infection,” said Zeberg. However, since HIV only emerged in the 20th century, protection against this infectious disease cannot explain why the genetic risk variant of COVID-19 became so common in humans 10,000 years ago.
“We now know that this risky variant of COVID-19 offers protection against HIV. But it was likely protection against another disease that increased in frequency after the last ice age,” Zeberg concluded. (ANI)
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