In the last decade, Neanderthals, the now extinct homo sapiens who inhabited Eurasia around 40,000 years ago, have proven much more closely related to modern day humans than what was once thought. Neanderthal DNA, extracted from bones found in various caves around the world, has been closely examined by scientists as an explanation for human outward characteristics.

Aside from hair, nails, and skin, Neanderthal genetic material still influences the immune systems of particular populations. An article from Jef Akst expresses the relationship between modern human genomes and that of Neanderthals stating that “Neanderthal DNA at various sites in the genome influences a range of immune and autoimmune traits” (Akst). With the rise of COVID-19 and the mystery as to why it affects some populations more than others, researchers have recently started looking to Neanderthal DNA to shed some light on why certain immune systems have fallen to the virus while others recover. 

While only a small percentage of humans still carry Neanderthal DNA, that small percentage bear genetic material making it hard for them to survive COVID-19. Entering the human population via gene flow, Neanderthal haplotypes, a group of genes inherited from a single parent species, “may thus be a substantial contributor to COVID-19 risk in some populations” (Zeberg). Through arduous research, scientists found a connection between humans who carry a Neanderthal inherited chromosome 3 and an increased risk of death as a result of COVID-19.

Analyzing the symptoms and DNA structure of around 3,200 COVID-19 hospitalized patients, the researchers concluded that “a gene cluster on chromosome 3 [is] a risk […] for respiratory failure after infection” where the risk is “conferred by a genomic segment…inherited from Neanderthals” (Zeberg). A heavily respiratory based virus, a chromosome that hinders the functionality of the respiratory system will obviously cause those who possess the genome to suffer. Such research has provided insight into why certain populations have been more seriously affected by COVID-19 than others, a critical observation for suppressing the virus. 

While Neanderthals are not to blame for the current state of the pandemic, their DNA gives insight into some mysteries of the disastrous virus. Along with presenting one possible prerequisite for a COVID-19 complication, analyzing such genetic structure could be used to understand the prevalence of other diseases in specific cultures. An immense obstacle to understanding the human reaction to infectious diseases has been why one population reacts differently from another, and Neanderthal genomes yield information that can transform the perspective of research scientists in this field. 

Works Cited

Akst, Jef. “Neanderthal DNA in Modern Human Genomes Is Not Silent.” The Scientist Magazine, The Scientist Magazine, 1 Sept. 2019,

Zeberg, Hugo, and Svante Pääbo. “The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe COVID-19 Is Inherited from Neanderthals.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 30 Sept. 2020,

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January 5, 2021 5:34 pm

This is such a cool topic. I had no idea that your genetic makeup could possibly affect your immune system. And that having neanderthal DNA could impact how COVID-19 affects you.

Thano Prokos
December 17, 2020 12:25 am

As I mentioned in class, this piece took a turn, and such a cool one, Izzy!

There’s obviously a wide breadth of further research you could do on how studying pre-historic DNA can prove insightful for combatting modern medical issues.

More interesting to me, however, is the bigger picture concerning this piece and the nature of scientific research as a whole. This insight into neanderthal DNA really shows that we don’t know what we don’t know, and critical problem solving often has to include thinking outside the box and learning as much as we can about seemingly trivial subjects because we don’t know what insights this type of research could yield. And yet, all of this context exists in a world where people often view this type of research as frivolous or wasteful, and as a result, research departments often see their budgets drastically cut. This article on 2017 congressional budget cuts proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul speaks to this issue:

Lots of potential for a follow-up, here, Izzy. What other scientific discoveries could you give us insight into? What are the implications on these discoveries? What about the context surrounding research? Any one of these questions would make a great follow-up piece!

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