Clues on How COVID-19 Impacts You, Maybe in Your Genes - New Canadian Media
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Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer at a media conference. Photo Credit: British Columbia Government.

Clues on How COVID-19 Impacts You, Maybe in Your Genes

Responding to an NCM reporter's question, the B. C. government has said it does want to study the underlying genetic factors that may be causing some Canadians to be more vulnerable to the pandemic than others. But, a detailed study will have to wait until the current wave of infections is behind us.

British Columbia is not collecting data to better understand the effects of ethnicity in patients with COVID-19, due to the surge in cases and demand on public health resources, the provincial ministry of health said.

However, it does support collecting such data, as is being done in Ontario, to analyze the impacts of COVID-19 on racialized communities and neighbourhoods with large New Canadian populations.

“Due to the surge in cases and demand on Public Health resources, the data you are asking for is not currently being collected at the point of care, with the exception of data on Indigeneity,” a ministry spokesperson told NCM.

“Our focus right now is on managing the virus to keep British Columbians safe,” the spokesperson added.

“Dr. Bonnie Henry (B.C.’s provincial health officer) does support the collection of this data so we can better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on racialized communities,” he said. “We continue to work with the federal government on a national framework that ensures British Columbia will collect data that protects privacy and is consistent with other provinces.” 

Dr. Kathleen Ross, president of Doctors of BC said data on ethnicity and genetic markers will go a long way to help physicians better understand COVID-19.

But she cautioned studies looking at COVID-19 susceptibility in ethnic communities, must also look at a whole range of socio-economic factors and systemic disparities to have meaningful outcomes.

This includes living in larger household sizes comprised of multiple generations and being employed in frontline roles like nursing and home-care, where working from home is not an option.

“There are already multiple examples of genetic markers that have helped treatment outcomes in lung and heart diseases,” Ross told NCM.

“Doctors of BC will always support meaningful research on the role of ethnicity in COVID-19 as this will help doctors deliver better individualized treatments for their patients,” she said.

B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, is among those who are calling for 

data on COVID-19 deaths and ethnicity to understand why members of different communities who get the coronavirus may be dying at higher rates and to establish how to address the problem.

“It’s, I think, extremely important to be collecting that data,” Govender told CBC adding “Now, we’re not going to get the data overnight. So the sooner we start collecting, the sooner we can work and put in place good, strong policies.”

Genetic markers

The comments come in the wake of a meta-research analysis published in the Lancet Medical Journal that found people of Black and Asian ethnicity are almost twice as likely to be infected with COVID-19 compared to those of White ethnicity.

The research team pooled data from more than 18 million people who had taken part in 50 studies in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. 

Researchers also found those of Asian ethnicities to be at higher risk of admission to an intensive therapy unit (ITU) and death. 

Dr. Shirley Sze, NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer and Specialist Registrar in Cardiology at the University of Leicester, and a lead author of the paper, said, “The clear evidence of increased risk of infection amongst ethnic minority groups is of urgent public health importance – we must work to minimise exposure to the virus in these at-risk groups by facilitating their timely access to healthcare resources and target the social and structural disparities that contribute to health inequalities.”

Statistics Canada in a report last month said Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia had the highest numbers of deaths due to COVID-19 in comparison with the other provinces in Canada between March 2020 and July 2020.

In all of these provinces, the additional burden from the disease was found in neighbourhoods with higher proportions of population groups designated visible minorities.

Between March and July 2020, Montréal and Toronto had the highest numbers of deaths due to COVID-19. The specific group with the highest proportion of COVID-19 deaths in Montréal was the Black population and in Toronto, the South Asian population.

While BC has yet to embark on a significant study on this issue, it did a population health survey involving 390,000 people, which showed there was a differential impact on racialized populations in British Columbia. 

“We’ve seen around the world that this virus and the measures that have been taken do expose some of the differential impacts or some of the inequities in our communities and we’re no different,” said Henry, when presenting the results.

“We see that West Asian, Latin American and South Asian respondents were more likely to report increased difficulty meeting their financial needs during this period of time and more likely to report not working directly because of COVID-19, whereas Caucasian respondents had less difficulty making ends meet, fewer were not working, they were less likely to avoid health care, and had less food insecurity,” said Henry.

“The other areas we looked at were around difficulty accessing health care. And again, we see a differential where 30% of Japanese, Korean, and other South Asian respondents were more likely to report having difficulty,” she said.

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A multiple-award winning journalist, Fabian Dawson is an internationally acclaimed author, filmmaker and media expert. His work over the last four decades spans the globe and he also serves as a consultant/strategic advisor to a variety of international companies. As deputy editor-in-chief of The Province, part of the Postmedia chain, Dawson led initiatives within a special publications group to provide directed content for a variety of organisations. He was named the 2019 recipient of the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award at Jack Webster Awards. Dawson has been invited by the governments of India, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and the United States to act as a media observer/advisor on a variety of Asian-Canada issues. Dawson, now operates FD Media, which specializes in harnessing editorial assets to revenue generating opportunities.

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