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By Joe Pinkstone- A single Neanderthal gene found in one in six Britons is likely to blame for up to a million Covid deaths, according to an Oxford academic.
The LZTFL1 gene is a Neanderthal gene found on chromosome three and has been previously shown to double a person’s risk of severe disease and death.
But before now there had never been an estimated figure for how many lives were lost to this single piece of genetic code.
Roughly 15 per cent of Europeans have the Neanderthal form of the gene, compared to about 60 per cent of South Asians.
Dr James Davies of the University of Oxford, a genomic expert and ICU doctor who worked on the Covid wards during the pandemic, discovered the innocuous gene’s lethal role last year after creating a brand new cutting-edge way of looking at DNA in exceptional detail.
The method allowed him to identify LZTFL1 as the culpable gene increasing mortality, whereas previous methods had failed to narrow it down beyond 28 different genes.
Speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Dr Davies said: “We used the technique and it identified a virtually understudied gene called LZTFL1 and at the time that this had not been linked to infection at all.
“It’s a single letter difference out of three billion. This tiny section of DNA doubles your risk of dying from Covid.
“It’s position 45,818,159 on chromosome three, and it’s a single change. If you’ve got a G at that site, it’s low risk. And if you have an A at that site it is high risk.”
His team believe that the Neanderthal gene changes how a cell behaves when the SARS-CoV-2 virus binds to the ACE2 receptor on a human cell.
In most people, this leads to the cell then changing shape and becoming less specialised and less prone to infection, stymying the progression of the infection.
“What this high risk variant does is it creates a new signal that tells that gene to stay on for slightly too long in response to infection,” Prof Davies said.
“And so they stay in this state where they’re highly specialised, and they’re prone to infection for longer.”
The number of deaths globally from this nefarious genetic variant “is in the hundreds of thousands to a million,” he told the audience.
‘Dinner date’ between human and Neanderthal
Dr Davies and his colleague from Oxford Brookes University, Dr Simon Underdown, a biological anthropologist, also revealed that the Neanderthal gene first infiltrated humans 60,000 years ago after one romantic liaison and interspecies tryst between a human and a neanderthal. A solitary coupling event across species lines saw the deadly Covid gene jump from our now-extinct cousin species into us.
“If this dinner date between the human and the Neanderthal had gone wrong, we would have had a much better time in Covid, we would have had hundreds of thousands less deaths,” said Prof Davies.
“The reason that we know that is that it’s inherited as this block with 28 single letter changes, and you can track that all the way back and it has to be a single event. It’s just so unlikely that you get all 28 changes at the same time and in the same block.”
Neanderthals ‘looked just like us’
Dr Underdown added that Neanderthals would likely have looked very similar to humans.
“Arguably, they look just like us,” he said. “If you dress one of these guys up in a hat and a coat…you wouldn’t give them a second glance.
“What would happen when a Neanderthal came into contact with Homo sapiens? Would they even recognise them as different? I would argue very much that they wouldn’t.”
“They would have thought they were unusual insofar as they didn’t look exactly alike but they were similar enough that they probably wouldn’t have even known it was something that different.
“We see Neanderthal integration, or sex, taking place around 60,000 years ago after they left Africa and this is the event where James’s gene jumps across.
“This is the event where the gene that gives you more severe Covid jumps across into the Homo sapien lineage.” (The Telegraph)
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