COVID Booster

Neanderthal genes protect us from COVID-19

A group of genes that reduce by 20% a person’s risk of falling seriously ill with COVID-19 was inherited from Neanderthals, according to a new study published in PNAS.

“Of course, other factors such as advanced age or underlying conditions such as diabetes have a significant impact on how ill an infected individual may become,” says co-author Svante Pääbo from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) in Japan. “But genetic factors also play an important role and some of these have been contributed to present-day people by Neanderthals.”

The genes are located on chromosome 12 and encode for enzymes that play a critical role in destroying the genome of invading viruses. People who possess the Neanderthal variant of the enzymes – which is about half of all humans who live outside of Africa – seem to be more protected against COVID-19, according to the researchers’ analysis of new genomic data of more than 2200 critically ill COVID-19 patients.

This result comes as a surprise to the joint Japanese and German research team, who previously discovered that the greatest genetic risk factor for developing severe COVID-19 was also inherited from these ancient ancestors.

“It’s quite amazing that despite Neanderthals becoming extinct around 40,000 years ago, their immune system still influences us in both positive and negative ways today,” says Pääbo.

It’s likely that the genetic variant in question was passed onto humans around 60,000 years ago, via interbreeding.

20.5 million years of life lost to COVID-19

The global death toll of COVID-19 is rapidly approaching 2.5 million, but a new study has calculated just how much the lives of these individuals were cut short.

The research, published in Nature, found that the pandemic has taken away a total of 20.5 million years of life, drawing on data from 1,279,866 deaths across 81 countries, plus life expectancy data and projected total COVID-19 deaths.

This highlights the fallacy that COVID-19 has largely claimed the lives of those who would have soon died anyway from old age or other medical conditions, instead showing the massive toll of the virus.

Nearly half of years of life lost occurred in individuals between 55 and 75, with 30.2% in people under 55 and 25% in those older than 75. Men are also disproportionately affected, having lost 45% more life years than women for countries in which gender data was available.

According to the study, the years of life lost to COVID-19 is 2–9 times greater than from the flu, but between a quarter and half of years of life lost to heart disease.

Innate immune system in children attacks COVID-19 faster

It’s known that children mostly have mild symptoms, if any, from COVID-19, but the reason hasn’t been entirely clear.

Research from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute shed more light on this last week, in a paper published in Nature Communications.

The study analysed blood samples from 48 children and 70 adults across Melbourne, all of whom had either tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19. They found that children’s immune systems responded differently to those of adults.

“Coronavirus infection in children was characterised by activation of neutrophils, the specialised white blood cell that helps heal damaged tissues and resolves infections, and a reduction in first-responder immune cells such as monocytes, dendritic cells and natural killer cells from the blood,” says MCRI researcher Melanie Neeland, lead author on the study.

“This suggests these infection-fighting immune cells are migrating to infection sites, quickly clearing the virus before it has a chance to really take hold.”

“Importantly, this immune reaction was not replicated among adults in the study.”

She also says that people who had been exposed to COVID-19 but not contracted it had different immune responses.

“Both kids and adults had increased neutrophil numbers, out to seven weeks after exposure to the virus, which could have provided a level of protection from disease.”

Cheap antibody test developed in New Zealand

Researchers from the Auckland University of Technology have developed a low-cost COVID-19 antibody test that can be done with existing test infrastructure.

Antibody tests are useful for identifying past infections of COVID-19. They examine blood samples to determine whether the subject has developed antibodies to COVID-19. 

The study, published in the journal Transfusion, took peptides from SARS-CoV-2 and developed a synthetic ‘paint’ that they could then use to make red blood cells look like the coronavirus.

If COVID-19 antibodies were present in a blood sample, they would react to the synthetic paint.

This research could be useful in countries with stretched testing resources, where COVID-19 prevalence is high.

Covid booster climate
People are as concerned by climate change as they were before the start of the pandemic. Credit: nito100 / Getty Images

Pandemic no factor on climate change worries

Despite dramatically disrupting people’s lives, COVID-19 hasn’t affected their concerns about climate change, according to a study from the UK.

Researchers surveyed 1,858 UK residents in both April 2019 and June 2020, with the same questions in both surveys. Answers to each of the questions were very similar, suggesting that COVID-19 had not displaced respondents’ worries about climate change.

This is in sharp contrast to the 2008 financial crisis, when environmental issues slipped down in people’s concerns.

This challenges the idea of a “finite pool of worry”, which suggests that people become less concerned about climate change when there are more immediate problems causing them stress. Climate change concern is now more persistent than that.

“Following the financial crisis, it seemed that climate change was one thing that gave, and most people saw it as less of a problem,” said Darrick Evensen, lead author on the study. 

“We are not seeing that same crowding out of climate change as an issue of concern now. This means heightened societal attention to climate change is here to stay.”

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