Did you have a severe case of COVID-19? Research suggests that Neanderthal genes could be to blame

An employee of the Natural History Museum in London looks at model of a Neanderthal male in his twenties. Researchers say they've found a link between those with gene variations associated with Neanderthal ancestry and severe cases of COVID-19.Will Oliver/PA Images/Getty
  • Neanderthal genes could be to blame for severe cases of COVID-19, The Wall Street Journal reported.

  • Scientists in Italy found people with Neanderthal gene variants were more likely to be hospitalized.

  • The research suggests the variants are a "major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19."

Researchers in Italy say their study of people infected with COVID-19 shows that those with certain genetic variations attributable to Neanderthal ancestry were far more likely to experience severe symptoms requiring hospitalization, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

Writing in the journal iScience, the researchers, associated with the nonprofit Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research, reported that they examined the DNA of nearly 1,200 volunteers in the Bergamo province, which was especially hard hit in the early days of the pandemic. What they found is that "Neanderthal haplotype," a set of genetic variants associated with the human ancestor, is "the major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19."

In particular, they found that people with the Neanderthal haplotype were twice as likely to develop severe pneumonia, the Journal reported, and three times as likely to end up on a ventilator in an intensive-care unit.

The link between health and Neanderthal DNA has been suggested by other studies. A study published in June by the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution indicated a link between Neanderthal DNA and a genetic disorder known as Dupuytren's disease. And in March, a study published in Nature also found a connection between Neanderthal ancestry and an increased risk of an extreme immune response, or cytokine storm, from contracting COVID-19.

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