Various studies are being undertaken in the United Kingdom (UK) to find out why black and ethnic minorities in the country appear to be more susceptible to COVID-19 than the white population.
UK government statistics have shown that people from minority ethnic groups, particularly South Asian and Black and African Caribbean communities, are up to four times more likely to die from COVID-19.
Now the government is spending millions of pounds to fund six projects whereby UK scientists will try to find out why people from an ethnic minority background are at greater risk from COVID-19.
The projects will look at health and genetic factors and social and working conditions - some of the reasons given for the high incidence of COVID-19 infections and deaths among the black and ethnic minority communities.
Most of the early victims of COVID-19 in the black community were working in the National Health Service (NHS) and the private health sector, mainly in care homes for the elderly who are in a vulnerable position in relation to the coronavirus.
A recent report by Public Health England (PHE) showed that 63 per cent of healthcare workers who died from COVID-19 were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background.
Two of the deaths that hit the headlines during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic were those of Augustine Agyei-Mensah who worked at the NHS Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation Trust (NHFT) and Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, 28, a nurse at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital – both originally from Ghana.
Angela Hillery, the chief executive of the NHFT, said Mr Agyei-Mensah cared for some of the most vulnerable people in society, adding: “Lives have been transformed because of him.”
Mrs Agyapong was pregnant when she contracted COVID-19 and pneumonia and died after her baby was delivered by emergency Caesarean section, according to the inquest.
Given that members of the black and ethnic minority form a substantial percentage of healthcare staff, the UK government recently launched a £2.1 million study to investigate COVID-19 risks among this group.
The Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Professor Chris Whitty 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.
He said a range of projects funded by the NIHR and UK Research and Innovation (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 added: “This research will have embedded patient and public involvement with black, Asian and minority ethnic groups at all stages of the research.”
The study will focus on 30,000 clinical and non-clinical black and ethnic minority members of staff and will follow the group for the next 12 months to see what changes occur in their physical and mental health, how they have changed their professional and social behaviours in response to COVID-19, and how risky their jobs are.
It will also include non-clinical staff integral to the day-to-day running of healthcare institutions, including cleaners, kitchen staff and porters.
The 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 new projects will enable researchers to work directly with ethnic minority groups to improve our evidence base and, crucially, save lives.”
Lord Bethell, the Health Minister, said: “I am deeply concerned by the disproportionate impact of this horrible virus on some minority communities.
“We need to find out what’s causing this, so we can stop these deaths.
“These research awards will give Britain’s scientists resources they need to answer the urgent questions behind these disparities so we can address the root causes and save lives.”
Dr Manish Pareek, Associate Clinical Professor in Infectious Diseases at the University of Leicester and the chief investigator of the study, noted that it was the first to be conducted on a large scale, investigating why these healthcare workers could be at greater risk of COVID-19.
“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,” he said.
Professor Kamlesh Khunti, who leads the Centre for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Health in Leicester, said the University of Leicester study would help in the development of a national Risk Reduction Framework for NHS staff and a comprehensive report recommending a series of policy actions to reduce health inequalities related to COVID-19.
“These studies will help us to develop and to refine these recommendations with the overall aim to mitigate further disparities in COVID-19 outcomes for ethnic minority healthcare staff,” he added.