Covid-19 can wipe out Andaman tribes if utmost precaution is not taken, scientists warn

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The indigenous tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, who have lived in isolation for tens of thousands of years, are at serious risk from the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes the respiratory disease Covid-19.

A group of 11 scientists from 13 institutions around the world have sounded the alarm on the basis of the genomic analysis of Indian populations.

The team studied high-density genomic data from around 1,600 individuals from 227 populations across India and concluded that the genetic structure of indigenous tribes such as Onge and Jarawa from A&N makes them prone to Covid-19.

In India, there are around 70 such tribes who have lived in isolation for thousands of years. Besides A&N, they are spread across states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, Kerala, etc.

“The genetic makeup of these tribes differs from a normal population. Since their population is very small and cut off from the rest of the world for at least 25,000 years, they have to choose their sexual partners from among their close tribal members only (strict inbreeding) ”, Prof Chaubey of the Department of Zoology, Banaras University Hindu (BHU), said.

He added, “As the biological father and birth mother are from the same tribe or perhaps more often close relatives, their children will inherit genes with the same DNA sequence. They carry a larger homozygous DNA.

Professor Chaubey co-led the study with Dr Kumarasamy Thangaraj of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and it has been published in the scientific journal Genes and Immunity.

This type of genetic makeup makes an individual not only susceptible to the virus, but the death rate can also tend to be quite high. This is the first study of its kind to use genomic data to predict the risk of Covid-19 in a small and isolated tribal population.

Dr Thangaraj is of the opinion that, since their population is already quite small, there is a high probability that Covid could wipe out their existence from Earth in the event that any of the members contract the virus.

Dr Thangaraj has been studying the genetic makeup of rare tribal populations for nearly two decades, and his first significant study published 15 years ago found that the A&N tribes were the first to migrate from Africa around 65,000 years ago.

“Since we already have the genetic samples of about 36 of these tribes from our previous studies, we did not need to visit them and collect the sample again. We come to the conclusion based on these 36 samples and their comparative study with other populations. Now the study applies to around 70 tribes, ”said Dr Thangaraj.

The team undertook the research after news reported that the death rate among indigenous groups in Brazil was double that of the normal population. The impact of the virus is so severe that many indigenous communities are on the brink of extinction.

The virus’s unusual behavior among the tribal population prompted these scientists to investigate their unique genetic aspect as an individual’s genes still play a key role in fighting any disease.

“The results obtained from this study suggest that we must place a high priority on the protection and utmost care of isolated populations so as not to lose some of the living treasures of modern human evolution,” said Dr Vinay Kumar Nandicoori, Director of CCMB. , Hyderabad.

These scientists fear that the illegal intrusion of tourists could pose a threat to the existence of these tribes in the post-Covid era.

In November 2019, 27-year-old American tourist John Allen Chau illegally landed on North Sentinel Island and attempted to contact Sentinel Tribes with populations of less than 150. They shot him dead on the island. the beach before he can enter the island.

“Besides the intrusion of travelers, in many places health workers also visit them to provide health facilities. They can also be carriers of the virus. The government must therefore ensure that anyone who visits the region does not carry the pathogen, ”added Nandicoori.

Other participants in this study include Prajjval Pratap Singh, Professor VN Mishra, Professor Royana Singh and Dr Abhishek Pathak from BHU, Varanasi; Dr Prashanth Suravajhala from Amrita University, Kerala; Pratheusa Machha of CSIR-CCMB, Hyderabad; Dr Rakesh Tamang from the University of Calcutta, Dr Ashutosh K Rai from Saudi Arabia, Dr Pankaj Shrivastava from FSL MP and Professor Keshav K Singh from the University of Alabama in the United States.

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