Covid breakthrough as gene that increases ‘severe’ risk may also help protect against HIV

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Infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, can manifest in many different ways, with some people only experiencing mild or even no symptoms, while others can become seriously or even life-threateningly ill. Various factors affect individual risk from coronavirus, including age, the presence of chronic diseases like diabetes and even our genetic heritage. Last year, geneticists Professors Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany found the main genetic risk factor for Covid to be a set of DNA variations found in some people that date back to our Neanderthal ancestors.

Investigating further, the pair went on to discover that the frequency of these genetic variants has increased among the human population since the Last Ice Age, which ended around 11,700 years ago.

In fact, the researchers said, the variations were unusually common for having been inherited from Neanderthals.

This led Prof Zeberg to begin to suspect that they might have conferred some benefit on their carriers in the past, resulting in a selective pressure to maintain them in the genome.

He added: “This major genetic risk factor for COVID-19 is so common that I started wondering whether it might actually be good for something, such as providing protection against another infectious disease.”

In his latest work, Prof Zeberg studied the genomes of a total of 667,806 people — 591 of whom had HIV — that were stored in the FinnGen, UK Biobank, and Michigan Genomic Initiative databases.

He found that those individuals carrying the Neanderthal gene variants that increase the risk from COVID-19 appear to have a 27 percent lower risk of contracting HIV.

The variations in question are located in a region on the so-called chromosome 3 that also contains several genes that encode for receptors in the body’s immune system.

One of these receptors — dubbed the C-C chemokine receptor type 5 (CCR5) — is used by the HIV virus to infect white blood cells.

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Prof Zeberg’s analysis suggests that people who carry the Neanderthal-derived Covid risk factor also exhibit fewer CCR5 receptors.

In this way, inheriting these particular ancient DNA variants provided HIV with less opportunities for HIV to infect the body’s immune system.

Prof Zeberg said: “This shows how a genetic variant can be both good and bad news.

“Bad news if a person contracts COVID-19, good news because it offers protection against getting infected with HIV.”

As HIV only arose in the 20th century, however, this benefit of the Covid risk factor cannot explain why the Neanderthal-derived variants became so common among the human population 20–10,0000 years ago — there must have been another benefit.

Prof Zeberg added: “Now we know that this risk variant for COVID-19 provides protection against HIV.

“But it was probably protection against yet another disease that increased its frequency after the last ice age.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal PNAS.

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