Socioeconomic and ethnic factors may influence the risk of viral infection. For example, both economic circumstances and cultural influences may impact the extent to which people can implement distancing measures, thus modifying their risk. The extent to which this is the case for SARS-CoV-2 infection has not been well characterized.
Recognizing this shortfall, S. Vittal Katikireddi of University of Glasgow, and colleagues investigated the relationship between ethnicity, socioeconomic status and the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection by taking advantage of the availability of virus test results for participants in the UK Biobank study. The results were published in the journal BMC Medicine.
Ethnic minority groups were at higher risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection overall than the caucasian majority and also at higher risk of testing positive while attending hospital. Black participants had the highest risk and South Asians also had greater risk of infection. The white Irish group had a marginally elevated risk.
Sociologist Peter Townsend defined a measure of material deprivation within a population in 1988, which has become eponymously known as the Townsend Index. Living in a deprived area compared to the most socioeconomically advantaged quartile was associated with greater risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, especially for the most disadvantaged quartile.
Higher risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection was also found amongst those with the lowest level of educational attainment.
Differences in infection risk were not fully accounted for by pre-existing health, behaviour or country of birth, as measured at baseline. Socioeconomic inequality appeared to contribute moderately to these ethnic differences.
A limitation of the study was that it was not determined whether the differences in infection risk between the different ethnic groups were due to cultural or genetic background. The study could benefit from replication in other datasets.
“The limited evidence available suggests that some ethnic minority groups, particularly black and south Asian people, are particularly vulnerable to the adverse consequences of COVID-19. Socioeconomic disadvantage and poorer pre-existing health do not explain all of this elevated risk. There is therefore a need to determine why this increased risk occurs,” concluded the authors.