Scientists have been given £4.3 million to investigate why black and Asian people are more likely to die from Covid-19.
UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health Research have funded six new research projects which will examine the link between coronavirus and ethnicity.
Emerging evidence suggests BAME (black and minority ethnic) people are nearly twice as likely to die of Covid-19 than those who are white, after taking into account the age of the individuals and other sociodemographic factors.
Data in Public Health England’s first report showed that the mortality rate – the number of people dying with the coronavirus out of each 100,000 people – was considerably higher for black men than other groups. The risk for black women, people of Asian ethnicity, and mixed race people was also higher than for white people of either sex. The report warned the rate for the ‘Other’ category was ‘likely to be an overestimate’
One of the projects will explore the impact of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, specifically on migrant and refugee groups, while another will look for ways to create targeted, digital health messages with help from key voices within BAME communities.
Meanwhile, the £2.1 million UK-Reach project, which received the largest proportion of the fund, will calculate the risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19 for ethnic minority healthcare workers.
Led by Dr Manish Pareek, an honorary consultant at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, the project will also follow a group of these healthcare workers over the next 12 months to assess their physical and mental health.
Dr Pareek said: ‘Globally, we have evidence that people from BAME backgrounds have a higher chance of going to intensive care and dying from Covid-19 – this may also be the case for healthcare staff.
‘Our study is the first to be conducted on a large scale, investigating why BAME healthcare workers could be at greater risk.
‘A recent PHE (Public Health England) report highlighted how 63% of healthcare workers that died from Covid-19 were from a BAME background.
‘We want this research to improve the lives of healthcare staff – to this end, we have a stakeholder group of major national organisations to research and publicise our findings.’
One of the research projects will also seek to determine the risk of infection and death from Covid-19 in individual ethnicity groups, combining more than 40 million patient GP records in England to create one of the largest Covid-19 cohorts in the UK.
While white people make up a majority of Covid-19 hospital cases, they are more likely to be treated on normal wards with less severe infection. For adults in all other ethnic groups, however, there are higher rates of intensive care admission than there are admissions for low-level care
Another project will use data from the UK Biobank, which contains biomedical information of 500,000 individuals, to examine whether the increased risk of developing severe Covid-19 in minority ethnic groups can be explained by differences in health status, lifestyle behaviours such as physical activity, and environmental factors such as social inequality.
And the final research project, led by Professor Shaun Treweek from the University of Aberdeen, aims to help enable the designers of clinical trials to consider the factors that may reduce the inclusion of BAME participants, such as culture, or trial information and procedures.
Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England and head of the National Institute for Health Research, 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 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.’
Gill Walton, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, which is supporting the UK-Reach study, urged action to tackle to issue immediately.
She said: ‘It cannot be right that black, Asian and minority ethnic health workers are not properly protected or are disadvantaged simply because of their race or ethnicity. Yet the anecdotal evidence of Covid-19 suggests just that.
‘It is critical that we find out quickly why this virus so adversely affected our black and Asian colleagues, so that measures can be put in place to ensure their safety.’