By Grahame Anderson

UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health Research are joint funding six new projects to improve understanding of the links between COVID-19 and ethnicity.

Worth £4.3million the whole scheme will seek to explain and mitigate the disproportionate death rate from COVID-19 among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, including BAME health and social care workers.

Crucial Projects

One of the projects will establish a unique partnership between national healthcare organizations to specifically address the prevalence of COVID-19 amongst BAME healthcare workers significantly overrepresented amongst the deaths from the virus. Another will design culturally relevant health messages for Black and South Asian groups and deliver these messages through specific and trusted communications channels, to influence behaviours and reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

There’ll also be a project aiming to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic and migrant groups and how to tackle it in community settings.

A further study will use the UK Biobank cohort, which has been linked to national COVID-19 data. Using this dataset, the team will use statistical modelling to examine whether the increased risk of developing severe COVID-19 in minority ethnic groups is explained by differences in underlying health status.

We can add to this a plan to see the rapid completion of a tool called the INCLUDE Ethnicity Framework, enabling the designers of clinical trials to consider the factors that may reduce the inclusion of BAME participants, such as existing disease, culture, treatment being tested, and trial information and procedures.

More research will determine the risk of infection and death from COVID-19 in individual ethnicity groups and seek to explain why these differences might exist.

Prominent Figures

The projects will involve prominent figures from Oxford, Leicester, Aberdeen, Southampton and Surrey along with the Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust and Kings College Hospital.

Professor Mahendra Patel, University of Bradford and National Board Member of The Royal Pharmaceutical Society, told me: “This is all great news but it’s not before time and such a shame it’s taken a pandemic to begin addressing problems within BAME communities. Suddenly we are getting to the real causes of why so many have lost their lives over the past few months.

There will certainly be off-shoots from all of these projects enabling us all to shed light on what needs to be rectified. The truth is we need to see results very quickly given a second wave could yet be on the way.

Those most at risk need to be protected and we need to learn all the lessons from this crisis simply because every life matters. For now, I say this is very welcome, but let’s make all this research count in order to save lives both now and in the future.”

BAME people are nearly twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. Given all this, there’s an urgent need for more detailed data on why COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people from BAME backgrounds, building the essential evidence base needed to make recommendations to decision makers and protect the health of these groups.

Prof Kamlesh Khunti, director of the Centre for BME Health at the University of Leicester, is involved in three of the projects. He said: “We will definitely get answers to the things that are putting people at much higher risk. As soon as we get results that might make a difference, it is important that we get them out straight away.”

Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR Professor Chris Whitty explained: “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.”

Complex Reasons

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on all of our lives, but sadly we have seen that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are disproportionately affected by this terrible disease. There is an urgent need to better understand the complex reasons behind this. These six new projects will enable researchers to work directly with ethnic minority groups to improve our evidence base and, crucially, save lives.”

BAME people are nearly twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than those from a white background – It’s hoped these projects will build on the UK’s world-class expertise and capability in global heath and infectious disease.