The Neanderthals are an extinct species of humanoids that like us belonged to the Homo family, Also known as, the human family. Their full name is Homo Neanderthals when we are Homo sapiens (the thinking man – modern humans). The Neanderthals had a stronger build that ours and shorter limbs. These features have often been explained as an adaption for preserving body heat in cold weather, and adapting to fast runs in the hot, wooded climate in which they lived.

The Neanderthals lived in Eurasia- which we know today as the continents of Asia and Europe and went extinct about 40,000 years ago. There are many theories regarding the cause of their extinction such as major climate change or disease, but the leading theory is that they went extinct due to competition with modern European humans. Science suggests that our two species shared a common ancestor.  Many believe that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals could have produced offspring together. Between 1-4% of the genome of modern humans from Europe, Asia, Oceania, Native Americans and North Africans, originated from Neanderthals. Neanderthal genes were not found in humans from Africa.

Some of the common genes identified have been linked to the immune system, speech ability and the digestion of certain sugars, but most of the DNA from a Neanderthal source is actually not encoded into proteins and therefore considered junk DNA

A recent study published in the reputed Nature journal reported that a 50,000-base DNA cluster of Neanderthal origin was found in people who reacted severely to the coronavirus (of COVID-19) and serves as a genetic risk factor. This section of DNA is found in about 50% of people in South Asia and 16% of people in Europe. According to the new study, those who inherited this DNA segment are three times more likely to need a respirator after being infected with the Coronavirus.

Beyond identifying these genes as genes of Neanderthal origin, it is still unclear why this section of DNA increases the risk of a severe response to the Coronavirus. Researchers report tremendous efforts being invested to understand the connection between this segment and the response to the virus, as this understanding can teach us about the virus infectious mechanisms. One of the great riddles in this epidemic is the unexplained differences in the response to infections between different people. For example, this information could explain why people of Bangladeshi origin in the UK are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as the rest of the population. A possible explanation is that about 63% of Bangladesh’s population carry this genetic segment.