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COVID-19 and ethnicity: six new projects announced

Grandmother with face mask sees her granddaughter through a window

Six projects to improve our understanding of the links between COVID-19 and ethnicity were funded by UKRI and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in July 2020.

These projects seek to explain and mitigate the disproportionate death rate from COVID-19 among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, including health and social care workers.

Emerging evidence showed that, after taking account of age and other sociodemographic factors, BAME people were nearly twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.

Why are people from BAME backgrounds so badly affected by COVID-19?

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said in July 2020:

It is abundantly clear that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Urgent action must be taken to determine and address the factors underlying this disparity.

There is unlikely to be a simple answer and we must consider all possibilities, reflected in the range of projects we have funded, so that we can save as many lives as possible during this pandemic and any future outbreaks.

Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR, said:

With evidence showing that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are more severely affected by COVID-19, it is critical that we understand what factors are driving this risk to address them effectively.

The diverse range of projects funded by the NIHR and UKRI will help examine this association in detail, so that new treatments and approaches to care can be developed to target the ethnicities most at risk.

This research will have embedded patient and public involvement with Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups at all stages of the research.

A better evidence base could save BAME people’s lives

The projects totalled nearly £3 million of funding, with researchers working to introduce a new framework to ensure the representation of people from BAME backgrounds in clinical trials testing new treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

It supported the creation of one the UK’s largest COVID-19 cohorts, and an alliance with key voices within BAME communities, to develop targeted, digital health messages to help them gain equal access to healthcare.

Finding correlations

Researchers are collaborating with UK Biobank, a project part-funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), which built up a genetic database of over half a million 40 to 70 year olds between 2006 and 2010. This was to investigate correlations between biological, behavioural and socioeconomic factors, which may be able to help explain why COVID-19 is affecting different ethnic groups with varying severity.

Investigators from Queen Mary University of London, in collaboration with the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, have already reported from their research carried out in collaboration with UK Biobank.

They found that the relationship between COVID-19 infection and ethnicity is complex, and requires more dedicated research to explain the factors driving these patterns.

They found no link between socioeconomic or behavioural factors, cardiovascular disease risk, or by vitamin D status for Black, Asian and ethnic minority populations.

Professor Thomas Yates at the University of Leicester is using the UK Biobank cohort to carry out statistical modelling to examine whether the increased risk of developing severe COVID-19 in minority ethnic groups is explained by other differences. This includes underlying health status, lifestyle behaviours such as physical activity and environmental factors including measures of social inequality.

The University of Aberdeen leads on a project that will see the rapid completion of a tool called the INCLUDE Ethnicity Framework. It will enable the designers of clinical trials to consider the factors that may reduce the inclusion of BAME participants, such as existing disease, culture, the treatment being tested and trial information and procedures.

BAME healthcare workers

The Ethnicity and COVID-19 outcomes in Healthcare workers (UK-REACH) study is calculating the risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 for ethnic minority healthcare workers, with access to over two million records held by national healthcare organisations.

The study is looking into what changes occur in the physical and mental health of a cohort of healthcare workers, including non-clinical staff, from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds over 12 months.

The Economic and Social Research Council is also funding a study at King’s College London to identify the impact of COVID-19 on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds who work in health and social care.

This group of projects forms part of a rolling call for research proposals on COVID-19, jointly funded by UKRI and NIHR in response to the pandemic. It includes research on treatments, vaccines and the spread of the virus, as well as specific calls on COVID-19 and ethnicity, and the wider impact of the virus on mental health.

Last updated: 28 October 2020

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