Vitamin D deficiency due to skin pigmentation and diet may explain much of the higher rates of COVID-19 among BAME in England
The recent BMJ editorial by Khunti et al. asks “Is ethnicity linked to incidence or outcomes of covid-19?”  Here we outline how ethnicity relates to incidence and outcomes of COVID-19 due, in part, to lack of vitamin D because of increased skin pigmentation and diet.
Public Health England’s (PHE) recent report is a descriptive review of data on the risks, and outcomes, of COVID-19 , finding that these risks were higher in Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups than with White ethnicity. People in Black ethnic groups had the highest confirmed diagnosis rates, but people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had the highest death rates [80% higher than the death rates with White ethnicity].
The PHE report considered several risk-modifying factors in their analyses [age, sex, deprivation, region, and ethnicity], but not other factors mentioned that might contribute to these disparities [place of birth, occupation, living in care homes, co-morbidities or obesity]. A potentially important factor not considered in the PHE report was vitamin D deficiency, though mounting evidence suggests that vitamin D deficiency is an important risk factor for acute respiratory tract infections and for COVID-19. Meta-analysis of individual participant data from randomized double blind, placebo-controlled trials of vitamin D supplementation showed adjusted odds ratios (OR) of 0.88, [95% confidence interval (CI); 0.81-0.96; P for heterogeneity <0.001] for reduction in acute respiratory tract infection risks with supplementation overall,  but reductions were greatest in those with baseline serum 25(OH)D values < 25 nmol/l [deficiency] vs. those with baseline values > 25nmol/l (adjusted OR 0.30 (95% CI; 0.25-0.6) vs. 0.75 (95% CI; 0.60-0.95: P for interaction, 0.006).
Mounting evidence demonstrates that vitamin D has important roles in regulating the immune system that should reduce COVID-19 risks; primarily by reducing survival and replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and by reducing the risks of “cytokine storms” by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokine production and increasing anti-inflammatory cytokine productcion . Vitamin D also promotes local ACE2 formation in the lungs, an effect known to reduce the severity of acute respiratory distress syndrome . Furthermore, higher baseline serum 25(OH)D concentrations are currently being reported to be associated with reduced rates of severe COVID-19 and of mortality. 212 COVID-19 patients from three hospitals in southern Asian countries demonstrated an inverse correlation between baseline serum 25(OH)D concentration and clinical outcomes; with mean 25(OH)D values of 78 nmol/l, 69 nmol/l, 53 nmol/l, and 43 nmol/l for ‘mild’, ordinary’, ‘severe’ and ‘critical’ outcomes, respectively, and the differences in those mean 25OH)D values were statistically significant (p<0.001) .
An Indonesian study of 780 COVID-19 patients found adjusted OR for death of x7.6 (P<0.001) for 25(OH)D values of 50-75 nmol/l vs. patients with 25(OH)D values >75 nmol/l, rising to x10.1 for 25(OH)D values <50 nmol/l .
Nearer England, 25(OH)D concentrations of 186 consecutive COVID-19 patients from Roeselare, Belgium were inversely correlated with COVID-19 severity in males but not females, with median baseline 25(OH)D values in men with Stage 1 disease on CT = 49 nmol/l (P<0.05), with stage 2 = 44 nmol/l, and with CT Stage 3 = 40 nmol/l (P<0.05) versus 51 nmol/l in inpatients with non-covid related illnesses.
BAME in England have higher rates of vitamin D deficiency [25(OH)D concentration <50 nmol/l)] than other UK citizens, for example, the UK-based National Diet and Nutrition Survey for 2008-2012 found that 20.2% of whites aged 18-70 y had serum 25(OH)D concentrations <33 nmol/l vs. 50.5% of BAME 8, the 25(OH)D concentrations being confirmed by accurate modelling of 25(OH)D responses to ultraviolet B exposure and vitamin D intakes .
Another recent publication using 25(OH)D concentrations sampled between 2006 and 2010 for the UK Biobank confirmed that values <25 nmol/l were significantly correlated with increased risk for COVID-19 [OR = 1.37 (95% CI; 1.07-1.76)] . Further adjustment for race and ethnicity reduced the OR to 0.92 (95% CI; 0.71-1.21) though median 25(OH)D concentrations were 34 nmol/l in white, 21 nmol/l in black and 14.5 nmol/l in South Asian participants. However, a letter to the editor [in press] points out that adjustment for ethnicity was likely an over-adjustment, since this factor is probably causal rather than a confounder .
Reasons for South Asian vitamin D deficiency include increased skin pigmentation, providing natural sun-screening, and that many are vegetarians or vegans, but vegetables other than fungi do not contain vitamin D, while animal products [meat, wild oily fish and eggs] contain vitamin D, both as vitamin D3 and its 25(OH)D metabolite . Thus, mean 25(OH)D concentrations in 2109 white men and women in winter were 63 nmol/l for meat eaters, 57 nmol/l for fish eaters, 52 nmol/l for vegetarians, and 38 nmol/l for vegans .
There are many further benefits of vitamin D repletion. Secondary analyses of two recent vitamin D RCTs, for example, report significant benefits - reduced cancer rates for supplemented non-obese participants [BMI <25 kg/m2] and reduced rates of cancer deaths with supplementation, overall [14,15]. Reduced risk of progressing from prediabetes to diabetes was found in non-obese participants [BMI<30 kg/m2] and in those not given additional calcium supplements [16,15].
What should be done about this problem? Studies in the UK should assess correlations between baseline serum 25(OH)D values and COVID-19 infection severity; should trial adequate vitamin D supplementation of newly hospitalized patients for effects on disease progression [if not already on-going]  and BAME and others populations groups well-known to be at high risk of vitamin D deficiency [indoor and shift workers, the elderly, those in residential care or currently confined to their homes, and the obese] should be advised to take daily supplementation that might reduce COVID-19 severity. Vitamin D is readily available in the UK ‘over the counter’ at supermarkets, chemists and on-line, but could be provided free to those in financial hardship or unable to access supplies. Doses of 1000 IU/day in general and of 4000 IU/day for those at high risk of deficiency, as above, including the BAME groups, should be advised for the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak, since those doses are within NICE safety limits and would help avoid deficiency.
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Competing interests: WBG receives funding from Bio-Tech Pharmacal, Inc. (Fayetteville, AR, USA). BJB has no conflicts of interest to report.