- A coronavirus epidemic may have struck East Asia 20,000 years ago, a new study suggests.
- Ancient humans had to adapt to viral exposure, leaving unique markers in the DNA of their descendants.
- Studying these changes to the genome might help researchers understand how to treat COVID-19.
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As the world continues to reckon with the effects of the novel coronavirus over the past year and a half, new evidence suggests humanity’s battle against the virus may have started much earlier.
Genetic evidence shows ancient humans in East Asia were exposed to coronavirus 20,000 years ago, according a study published June 24 in Current Biology.
Researchers found unique markers in the genomes of people from China, Japan, and Vietnam, suggesting their ancestors adapted to fight off a viral threat. These markers weren’t found on other continents, or even in neighboring South Asia. The markers were also distinct from those linked to other diseases in the region.
These findings indicate the populations dealt with an epidemic of coronavirus or a very similar virus, according to the study, authored by scientists from several institutions, including the University of Arizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.
The new evidence of coronavirus infections from 20,000 years ago is supported by previous research estimating that the family of viruses emerged around 23,000 to 25,000 years ago.
Understanding this ancient epidemic could help us better understand how to treat coronavirus cases today, the researchers wrote in the study. Four of the genes researchers identified as playing a role in coronavirus response are targeted by new therapies being used or tested to treat COVID-19.