Another Coronavirus Epidemic Hit 20,000 Years Ago, New Study Finds

by : Emily Brown on : 25 Jun 2021 11:31
Another Coronavirus Epidemic Hit 20,000 Years Ago, New Study FindsPxhere/NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A new study has found evidence that a coronavirus epidemic hit East Asia about 20,000 years ago and resulted in an evolutionary imprint that can still be found on the DNA of people alive today.

Led by David Enard, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, the team of researchers looked into the history of coronavirus, with initial research taking them as far back as 820 years.


Three different coronaviruses have been known to adapt and infect humans, causing severe respiratory disease over the last 20 years, namely MERS, SARS, and the all-too-familiar COVID-19.

COVID-19 Temporary Restrictions sign (PA Images)PA Images

Studies of these three viruses indicate they jumped to humans from bats or other mammals, while research on four other coronaviruses, which usually only cause mild colds, were not found to have become human pathogens.

By relying on indirect clues to estimate when the jumps happened, scientists found the most recent of the mild viruses, HCoV-HKU1, came into humans in the 1950s. The oldest, HCoV-NL63, may date back as far as 820 years.


In the study, published this week in the journal Current Biology, Enard and his team looked at the effects the coronaviruses had on the DNA of humans, rather than looking at the genes of the viruses.

They compared the DNA of thousands of people across 26 different populations all over the globe, studying a combination of genes known to be crucial for coronaviruses but not other kinds of pathogens.

In East Asian populations, the scientists found 42 of these genes had a dominant version, indicating people in East Asia had adapted to an ancient coronavirus by developing a mutation resistant to the virus that was passed down through generations.


The team estimated the genes evolved their antiviral mutations between 20,000 and 25,000 years ago, with study co-author Yassine Souilmi explaining scientists may want to consider the 42 genes that evolved in response to the past epidemic in order to find clues on how to fight the more recent outbreak.

Souilmi told The New York Times, ‘It’s actually pointing us to molecular knobs to adjust the immune response to the virus.’

It is thought the genes evolved their mutations over the course of a few centuries, with the findings suggesting that the virus was present in the region for many years.


Commenting on the results, Enard said: ‘It should make us worry. What is going on right now might be going on for generations and generations.’

While evolutionary geneticist Aida Andres said she found the work compelling, she questioned the estimation of how long ago the epidemic took place, saying it is something she believes ‘we cannot be as confident of’.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: Science, Coronavirus, COVID-19


The New York Times
  1. The New York Times

    A Coronavirus Epidemic Hit 20,000 Years Ago, New Study Finds