Isolated tribal populations of India at higher risk of COVID-19: Study



NEW DELHI: Some isolated populations of India like the Onge and Jarawa tribes of the Andaman islands have a higher genetic risk for COVID-19, according to a study led by researchers at CSIR-CCMB and BHU.

The study, published in the journal Genes and Immunity, suggests that the government should consider high priority protection and utmost care of these isolated groups, so that “we should not lose some of the living treasures of modern human evolution”.

The research team co-led by Kumarasamy Thangaraj from Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB) Hyderabad and Professor Gyaneshwer Chaubey of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi noted that the expansion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has impacted various ethnic groups all over the world.

Recently, it has been reported that the indigenous groups of Brazil have been massively affected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, who had twice the death rate compared to other communities, they said.

It was also shown that many of the indigenous communities have reached the verge of extinction due to this pandemic, according to the researchers.

They noted that India also has several indigenous and smaller communities including Andaman Islanders living in isolation.

The researchers, involving 11 scientists from 13 institutions across the world, conducted a genomic analysis of 227 Indian populations, finding that populations carrying long homozygous segments in their genome have higher susceptibility to COVID-19.

Homozygous is a genetic condition where an individual inherits the same gene variants or alleles for a particular gene from both parents.

“There might be some speculations on the effect of COVID-19 among isolated populations, however for the first time we have used the genomic data to access the risk of it on them, said Chaubey, a professor of molecular anthropology at BHU.

“This approach would be useful to quantify the risk of a population for COVID-19,” he told PTI.

The research team investigated the high-density genomic data of over 1600 individuals from 227 populations and found high frequency of the COVID-19 risk alleles among Andaman Tribes Onge and Jarawa.

Among the studied groups, Andaman Islanders had the highest number as well as longest runs of homozygosity (ROH) segments.

“Since smaller populations experiencing drift may have a greater risk of such pandemic, we have analysed ROH among South Asian populations and identified several populations with longer homozygous segments,” the authors of the study noted.

“The long runs of homozygosity at certain genomic regions may increase the susceptibility for COVID-19. Thus, we suggest extreme careful management of this pandemic among isolated populations of South Asia,” they added.

Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinels are the aboriginal tribal populations of these islands.

“Total census of these aborigins are less than 1000 in numbers,” Chaubey said.

“The study has noted that these tribal populations live in protected areas and the general public is not allowed to interact with them. However, seeing the number of cases at the island among the general population, they are at greater risk mainly from illegal intruders and health workers,” he added.

Other researchers in the study are from Amrita University, Kerala, Calcutta University in West Bengal, Central Forensic Science laboratory in Madhya Pradesh, and the University of Alabama, US.

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