UCL News


New research to investigate links between COVID-19 and ethnicity

29 July 2020

UCL academics will play key roles in three new nationally funded research studies, which aim to improve our understanding of the links between COVID-19 and ethnicity.

Research investigates links between COVID-19 and ethnicity

In total, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), are providing £4.3m in funding for six projects, which 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.

Emerging evidence* shows that, after taking account of age and other sociodemographic factors, BAME people are nearly twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. There is 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.

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “It is now abundantly clear that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Urgent action must be taken to determine and address the factors underlying this disparity. There is unlikely to be a simple answer and we must consider all possibilities, reflected in the range of projects we have funded, so that we can save as many lives as possible during this pandemic and any future outbreaks.”

Commenting on UCL's involvement, Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research), said: “This funding is very welcome news. We know that COVID-19 poses a higher risk to BAME people, but the factors involved in this are still unclear. However, it is clear that the risk factors are complex and interlinked, and demand a holistic approach, working in partnership with healthcare professionals and communities.  These research projects will enable us to better understand the risk factors involved and develop impactful solutions to reduce the risks associated with COVID-19."

UCL academics are involved in the following studies:

Dr Robert Aldridge (UCL Institute of Health Informatics) will lead a £1.4m funded study to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic and migrant groups and how to tackle it in community settings.

The study will build on the UCL-led ‘Virus Watch’ study, which recruited 25,000 individuals across the country to investigate the extent of the spread of coronavirus within communities and how social distancing affects the risk of infection.

This new funding will enable the UCL team to recruit approximately 12,000 more people from minority ethnic and migrant groups. Their symptoms will be followed over time and subsets of participants will receive antigen and antibody tests, and the research team will study factors such as household transmission, occupation, co-morbidities, healthcare usage, and mental health and economic impacts.

Separately, they will also utilise the Million Migrant cohort study of healthcare and mortality outcomes in non-EU migrants and refugees to England since 2015. In collaboration with Public Health England, they will link this with data on COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalisation to determine how often these groups are diagnosed, hospitalised and die with COVID-19 and how this is affected by their socioeconomic situation and pre-existing health conditions. The Race Equality Foundation are a study partner.

Dr Aldridge said: "We worked with the Race Equality Foundation to review all aspects of the study, including the involvement of a Patient and Public Involvement colleague. We will continue to work with the Foundation on the analysis of data and to co-produce solutions to the issues the research uncovers. This will ensure the study remains relevant and can be delivered and communicated to a range of audiences."

Professor Chris McManus and Dr Katherine Woolf (both UCL Medical School) will work on the £2.1m UK-Reach study, which is led by the University of Leicester.   

The study will establish a unique partnership between national healthcare organisations to specifically address the prevalence of COVID-19 amongst BAME healthcare workers who have been significantly overrepresented amongst the deaths from the virus. The mixed-method project will bring together existing datasets to calculate the risk of COVID-19 to all BAME healthcare workers and follow a group of these healthcare workers over the next 12 months to assess their physical and mental health - as well as engage directly with a smaller group of workers to gather qualitative data.

Dr Woolf, who with Professor McManus has helped design the UK-Reach questionnaire, said: “We will shortly be asking doctors, nurses, midwives and other NHS staff around the country to complete the UK-REACH questionnaire. This questionnaire will help us understand how and why COVID-19 is having greater impact NHS healthcare workers from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups, to help protect them in future waves of the virus.”

Professor Andrew Hayward (UCL Epidemiology & Health) will work on a University of Surrey-led £371k study, which will create culturally relevant health messages for Black and South Asian groups and deliver these messages through trusted communications channels, to influence behaviours that reduce the transmission of COVID-19. The team will work alongside local, regional and national BAME community groups, community and faith leaders and public health and allied health professionals, to co-produce written and visual aids, such as short films mainly for smart phone viewing and mobile apps.

Speaking of his involvement, Professor Hayward, who led the original Virus Watch study, said: “The Virus Watch study and its BAME extension will collect information on risk factors for infection in different ethnic groups and on how different groups follow behavioural advice. We will share information with the project to help inform the development of the materials and will help to evaluate the impact of the health promotion materials on COVID related behaviours.”

*ONS data




  • 'Black woman in protective mask in grocery store', credit Retha Ferguson on Pexels. CC BY 2.0

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Henry Killworth

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E: h.killworth [at] ucl.ac.uk