Researchers from University College London (UCL) and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), compared the death rates of people in the UK prior to and during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. They found that Covid-19 multiplies death rates similar amount for most adults.
The research looked at the figures between March 5 and May 27 last year and found that people dying proportionately across the population regardless of underlying health issues. The study did confirm the greatest impact was on the numbers with pre-existing health conditions given they were already at a greater risk.
Some 10 million records of people over the age of 40 were looked, comparing the death rates in this group to those prior to the pandemic. These were further sorted using health and socio-economic profiles.
The study found that the death rate jumped by around 40% and was largely consistent across the population, irrespective of people’s health conditions and other characteristics. The researchers have further clarified these findings highlighting that prior to the pandemic people with pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease or asthma had a higher mortality rate than people without these conditions. This they further clarified by saying that increasing their chances of dying by a further 40% had a bigger absolute impact on them, compared with healthy individuals.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, University of Cambridge, said: “It’s good to have confirmation that the risks from Covid have been roughly proportional to the individual risks we all face in life – it serves to exaggerate any weaknesses we have.
“As the authors say, even if we all have a similar relative risk, the vulnerable start from a higher baseline and so have had a higher absolute risk of dying. For reasons that are not entirely clear, this virus picks on the weak and vulnerable. It is a bully.”
Interestingly the research did find some exceptions, with the death rate of those with dementia and with learning difficulties disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Both groups had more or less three times the rate of death compared to people without the condition before the pandemic but this rose to nearly five during the pandemic.
In terms of ethnicity, researchers found that before the pandemic black people had a 20% reduced rate of death compared to white people, but there was a 50% increase during wave one.
The same was found for people living in London who had a lower rate of death before the pandemic, however this rose substantially during the first wave.
Dr Helen Strongman from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), who co-led the research, said: “Our work has shown that the threat posed by Covid-19 increases evenly with frailty or ill health caused by aging and a wide range of respiratory and non-respiratory medical conditions.
“This compares to flu, which also tends to be more dangerous in the elderly but also affects young children and is more strongly associated with respiratory conditions such as asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and smoking.”
She added: “Our study shows that Sars-CoV is a predatory virus, amplifying mortality rates across the board, and having the biggest impact on those with existing ill health or who are frail. This emphasises how important it is for everyone to protect themselves and the most vulnerable in society through measures such as vaccination and wearing face masks.
The researchers acknowledge the limitations of the study and say that more research is needed to understand why Covid-19 multiplies death rates are similar for most adults, as it does why and how the virus exploits vulnerabilities.
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