UK government scientists are urgently investigating whether people living with obesity may be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, after data emerging from intensive care units suggested a stronger link than previously thought, BuzzFeed News may reveal.
Senior ministers raised fears that Britain's obesity rate, which is higher than most other developed countries, may be a factor in its comparatively higher number of deaths.
Current NHS recommendations state that very obese people – with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more – "may be at high risk" for COVID-19, but are not in the "very high risk" category that requires “shielding” at home all the time.
Government experts from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) are studying whether obesity and severe obesity could lead to worse outcomes for patients than expected, said several sources familiar with the group's work.
New data from the UK's National Center for Auditing and Research in Intensive Care, presented to SAGE ministers and scientists, found that the proportion of severely obese patients in ICUs is twice the proportion of severely obese people in the general population.
The UK Department of Health and Public Health confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the UK was conducting research on whether there was a causal link between obesity and COVID-19, or whether other comorbidities found in people with severe obesity are resulting in increased mortality .
Data and studies from the UK, USA, China and other European countries have shown that there is a strong association between obesity and coronavirus, sources familiar with British government scientists said, but warned that it is too early to say whether there was a causal link. with obesity itself or a correlation that could be explained by other comorbidities.
The scientists warned that more research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn. Discussions were held between British scientists and the World Health Organization about cooperation in further research on possible interactions between obesity and COVID-19, BuzzFeed News reported.
Ministers were increasingly alarmed by data from Britain's intensive care units, with some government officials suggesting that obesity could end up being a factor in the highest number of deaths in the UK.
Currently, the UK is projected to have the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, amid criticism of the government over the delay in complying with measures of social distance and blockade.
About 1 in 4 adults in the UK are obese. In 2018, WHO found that the UK had the third highest rate of obesity in Europe, behind only Malta and Turkey.
New data from the UK's National Center for Auditing and Research in Intensive Care (ICNARC) showed that the proportion of severely obese patients in the ICU with the virus was more than twice the proportion of severely obese people in the general population. .
In a sample of ICU patients studied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 7% had a BMI above 40. About 3% of the general population in England is severely obese.
Severely obese people in ICUs had 5 percentage points more likely to die than healthy weight patients, the ICNARC data showed.
The results were more rigorous when it came to the treatment needed for patients with severe obesity compared to patients with healthy weight.
Of those in need of advanced respiratory treatment, 39% were obese, compared to 25% who were healthy. Of those requiring basic respiratory support, 37% were obese. Again, 25% were healthy.
Additional studies in the UK, New York and China have also suggested an association between obesity and coronavirus, and are being analyzed by British ministers and experts.
AN study by the Coronavirus Clinical Characterization Consortium of people hospitalized with the virus in Britain found that the risk of death was 37% higher in obese patients.
Other study in New York, they found that severely obese people were six times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Obese people were four times more likely.
AN study in China, they found that people with obesity may be three times more likely to develop severe pneumonia.
According to a report published by the National Institute of Health in Italy, a study in a small sample of patients with COVID-19 found that obesity was an underlying condition in some people under 50 who died, but the report does not draw conclusions in any way.
SAGE scientists are exploring potential "mechanisms" that may show a causal relationship between obesity and having more severe symptoms of COVID-19, including the potential for an increased inflammatory response in obese people to exacerbate the virus's symptoms.
Sources familiar with SAGE's work emphasized to BuzzFeed News that there is currently insufficient evidence to prove that obesity itself has resulted in increased mortality and that more research needs to be done. They said that people with severe obesity often have other comorbidities that may be responsible for worse symptoms.
Older people, men, blacks and Asians and people from disadvantaged social backgrounds were also having worse results, the ICNARC data showed.