Multimillion investment for research on COVID-19 and ethnicity

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WEXHAM, ENGLAND - MAY 22: Image released on May 27, Patient Hitesh Patel talks to doctor Jasmine Gan on a Covid recovery ward at Wexham Park Hospital near Slough on May 22, 2020 in Wexham, United Kingdom. A&E services at the hospital have remained open throughout the pandemic with safeguards including separate zones for confirmed or suspected Covid patients and non-Covid patients. (Photo by Steve Parsons - Pool/Getty Images)

The link between the coronavirus pandemic and ethnicity will be investigated in six new multi-million pound research projects, it was announced on Wednesday (29 July).

Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the projects will seek to explain and mitigate the disproportionate death rate from Covid-19 among people of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

The announcement follows statistics which showed ethnic minorities are nearly twice more likely to die from the deadly virus than white people. A recent Public Health England (PHE) report revealed 63 per cent of healthcare workers who died from Covid-19 were from a BAME background.

In response to the projects, Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England and head of the NIHR said it was “critical” to understand why BAME groups are more severely affected by coronavirus.

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

The project, totalling £4.3 million worth of funding, will explore the impact of the virus specifically on migrant and refugee groups. According to UKRI, the group of projects forms “part of a rolling call” for research proposals on Covid-19 and will include 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.

It will aim to work with key voices within ethnic minority communities to create targeted, digital health messages, organisers said. UKRI and NIHR have additionally promised 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.

Kemi Badenoch MP, exchequer secretary to the Treasury, said the research was “testament” to how seriously the government was handling the issue.

“It is critical that citizens, whatever their background, are appropriately supported in the fight against Covid 19,” she said. “This includes researching the impact of the virus on them. It is vital that all the action we take is evidence-based and fully informed.

“This multimillion pound investment will enable our scientists and health workers to investigate further and get the information needed to protect the lives of our citizens.”

Dr Manish Pareek, principal investigator of the UK-REACH study, University of Leicester and honorary consultant at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, is one of the researchers to receive funding from the scheme. The UK Research Study into Ethnicity And COVID-19 outcomes in Healthcare workers will calculate the risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19 for ethnic minority healthcare workers, with access to over two million healthcare records held by national healthcare organisations.

“Our study is the first to be conducted on a large scale, investigating why BAME healthcare workers could be at greater risk,” the academic explained.“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.”