Obesity increases risk of death from Covid-19 by almost 50 per cent

Analysis of 75 studies finds that the very overweight at high risk of coronavirus complications

Experts suggest that a future vaccine may not be as effective for those who are severely overweight Getty
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Obese people who contracted Covid-19 were 48 per cent more likely to die and had a 74 per cent increased risk of being admitted to intensive care, according to a review of studies of the coronavirus.

The analysis – which used data from 75 research papers and nearly 400,000 patients – by a team from the University of North Carolina found that those with obesity were 113 per cent more in danger of being hospitalised. It also suggested that a future vaccine may not be as effective for those who are severely overweight.

The links can partly be attributed to the various underlying health problems and risk factors that obese people have such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney and liver disease.

But obesity impairs the immune system response and anti-inflammatory cells needed to fight Covid-19, a repercussion also seen in influenza, hepatitis and other infectious diseases.

“Considering the exponential rise in the prevalence of individuals with obesity, understanding how being an individual with obesity increases the risk for severe Covid‐19 is critical to ensure appropriate interventional and prophylactic (preventive) therapies against this novel coronavirus,” the report’s authors said.

Professor Melinda Beck, a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina, said very overweight people were also likely to suffer from issues such as sleep apnoea, which increased pulmonary hypertension.

“All of these factors can influence immune cell metabolism, which determines how bodies respond to pathogens, like the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus,” Professor Beck said.

She and other experts have conducted previous work that suggests a vaccine for influenza may be less effective for people with obesity, raising questions if the same will happen with Covid-19.

“However, we are not saying that the vaccine will be ineffective in populations with obesity, but rather that obesity should be considered as a modifying factor to be considered for vaccine testing,” she said. “Even a less protective vaccine will still offer some level of immunity.”

Experts also warned that the lockdowns imposed around the world made it harder for people to keep to a healthy weight.

A reduction in movement was one issue, said Professor Barry Popkin, another nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina.

“We’re not only at home more and experience more stress due to the pandemic, but we’re also not visiting the grocery store as often, which means the demand for highly processed junk foods and sugary beverages that are less expensive and more shelf-stable has increased,” Professor Popkin said.

“These cheap, highly processed foods are high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat and laden with highly refined carbohydrates, which all increase the risk of not only excess weight gain but also key noncommunicable diseases.”

He said it was crucial that the emergence of Covid-19 and the increased understanding of the increased risk factors for those with obesity must be used by authorities to develop a plan to target the issue.

“Given the significant threat Covid-19 represents to individuals with obesity, healthy food policies can play a supportive – and especially important – role in the mitigation of Covid-19 mortality and morbidity,” Professor Popkin said.