One clear fact has emerged from Covid related deaths in America. It affects races disproportionately. What do I mean by that? Well, simply this. If you’re a black American you’re twice as likely to die from a Covid infection than your fellow white American.
If your old (over 70) and either black, Hispanic, or an indigenous American, your on average 3.3 times more likely to die than a white person. Here is reliable data that breaks down these trends amongst Covid deaths in the US and it makes for interesting reading.
Data below are provided by APM Research labs and includes deaths in the United States through 13 October 2020. You can view their latest analysis of death rates here.
These are the actual documented, nationwide mortality impacts from COVID-19 data (aggregated from all U.S. states and the District of Columbia) for all race groups:
- 1 in 920 Black Americans has died (or 108.4 deaths per 100,000)
- 1 in 1,110 Indigenous Americans has died (or 90.0 deaths per 100,000)
- 1 in 1,360 Latino Americans has died (or 73.5 deaths per 100,000)
- 1 in 1,450 Pacific Islander Americans has died (or 68.9 deaths per 100,000).
- 1 in 1,840 White Americans has died (or 54.4 deaths per 100,000)
- 1 in 2,200 Asian Americans has died (or 45.4 deaths per 100,000)
Black Americans continue to experience the highest actual COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide – two or more times as high as the rate for Whites and Asians, who have the lowest actual rates. If they had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as White Americans, about 21,800 Black, 11,400 Latino, 750 Indigenous, and 65 Pacific Islander Americans would still be alive.
Adjusting the data for age differences in race groups widens the gap in the overall mortality rates between all other groups and Whites, who have the lowest rate. Compared to Whites, the latest U.S. age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate for:
- Blacks are 3.2 times as high
- Latinos are 3.2 times as high
- Indigenous people are 3.1 times as high
- Pacific Islanders are 2.4 times as high, and
- Asians are 1.2 times as high.
In attempting to explain these huge differences suggestions of disparities in healthcare, access to care, and generations of racially entrenched discrimination have been proffered. Further complicating the picture are comorbidities, arguably more prominent amongst the disadvantaged classes and America’s staggering obesity figures.
Whilst these arguments no doubt account for a percentage of the differences in mortality between races, they are on their own insufficient to explain this trend. There are a variety of other factors that can influence our risk of coronavirus.
Asia versus the West
If we examine death rates in Asia in comparison to the West, the staggering difference in mortality and infections becomes really apparent. The differences are so pronounced as to lend credence to conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered by the Chinese and is designed to exploit Western genetic traits.
An article appearing in the Washington Post in late May of 2020 highlighted the glaring discrepancies between death rates in Asia and the rest of the world. This gap has only widened in the months since. The graph below shows deaths by country in late May and is provided by John Hopkins.
As of 29 October, America currently sits at Number 9 on the John Hopkins list with 619 Covid deaths per million people, Mexico beats it for 8th place, with a rate of 707 per million. The United Kingdom earns the unenviable honor of the tenth place. You can view the latest global figures from John Hopkins via Statista.
Want to know how Asian countries are fairing six months on? Here is some data drawn from the link above. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll list the country first followed by the number of deaths per million. Philippines: (arguably no longer purely Asian with Spanish and other Western genes spread through the community) 65.8, Indonesia: 50.3, Japan: 13.71, South Korea: 8.91, Malaysia: 7.7, Singapore: 4.79, Chine (Population of 1,397.72 million) 3.39, Thailand: 0.85, Vietnam: 0.36.
Vietnam and Thailand enjoy populations of 96.46 and 69.63 million respectively. Thailand’s most populace city, Bangkok, boasts a population of 10,539,415 people. Looking at the data, it is easy to argue that countries like China may be distorting their figures, but the modern age of social media make widespread outbreaks impossible to cover up.
If you still don’t think these figures indicate an issue, then let me place the listed deaths in the countries above in their proper context, or rather as a percentage of the total recorded global deaths. 13, 895 Asians have died from Covid-19, according to official figures. Note this number intentionally excludes India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Against global deaths of 1,180 898 that converts to a percentage of 0.01177.
In case you still haven’t got it, well over 50% of the world’s population lives in Asia. They should statistically be as, if not slightly more likely, to have incurred equal or higher death rates from Covid as the West. 600 000 rather than the current figure of 13 895. It hasn’t happened, even on the heels of China’s five day holiday to celebrate New Year with millions of Chinese moving between cities. The million-dollar question is why?
This answer is hugely important. It may cast light on aspects of the virus we have to date ignored and even affect our management policies moving forward.
Vectors beyond the scope of pandemic management
We’ve already highlighted America’s obesity and I will examine global trends below. Age is clearly not at issue as Japan boasts the world’s oldest population and yet boasts one of the lowest death rates per million, given its population and the density of its communities. The fact that elderly Asians live with their families exposes them to even more risk than their Western counterparts, isolated in houses, retirement, or care homes.
Obesity is a leading risk factor for serious covid-19 illness. According to the World Health Organization;
Just over 4 percent of Japanese people are classified as obese, and less than 5 percent of South Koreans. That compares with 20 percent or more in Western Europe, and 36 percent of people in the United States.
This undoubtedly plays a significant role in morbidity, but keep in mind that other diseases such as diabetes, another noted risk for Covid-19, are rife in countries like Malaysia. According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019, over 18% of adult Malaysians suffer from diabetes, half the population is obese or overweight and over 3 million Malaysians suffer from hypotension. Malaysia boasts a death rate of 7.7 people per million for Covid.
Our Immune systems
Our genes influence our immune responses and hugely so. People with Asian and European ancestry have enormous differences in the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) haplotype, genes that control the immune system’s response to a virus. This one single factor, more than any other, may point to the reason for Asia’s hugely low mortality rates.
Westerner’s immune systems may simply be unable to respond to Covid in quite the same way as Asians. Tatsuhiko Kodama of the University of Tokyo said studies had shown that Japanese people’s immune systems tended to react to the novel coronavirus as though they had previous exposure.
It is also worth noting that there are centuries of history of coronaviruses emerging from East Asia. According to Kodama;
“The enigma of lower death rates in East Asia can be explained by the presence of immunity.”
A team of researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in the United States has also pointed out that cross-immunity may have worked for some people. According to a paper released by the American scientific journal Cell, researchers found immune cells that reacted to the new coronavirus from about half of the blood samples collected from 20 people in the United States between 2015 and 2018.
Megan Murray, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, has suggested another factor worth exploring is differences in microbiomes — the trillions of bacteria that reside in a person’s gut and play a huge role in the immune response. According to Murray:
“Microbiomes are very different in different places. People eat very different food.”
Strains and Assumptions
Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University suggests the following.
“We are all facing the same bug with the same general arsenal of immune responses. There are differences in testing, reporting, control from country to country. And there are differences in rates of hypertension, chronic lung disease, et cetera, on a country-by-country basis.”
Are we all facing the same bug though? How has Covid mutated on its journey across the globe? Research by a team at Cambridge University showed how the virus mutated as it left East Asia and traveled to Europe, noting the possibility that the initial strain may have been “immunologically or environmentally adapted to a large section of the East Asian population” and needed to mutate to overcome resistance outside that region.
According to a more recent article in August from Science Daily;
The virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, presents at least six strains. Despite its mutations, the virus shows little variability. SARS-CoV-2 mutation rate remains low. Across Europe and Italy, the most widespread is strain G, while the L strain from Wuhan is gradually disappearing.
It was initially thought that hotter more temperate climates slowed the virus‘s ability to spread, just as is seen with influenza and with coronaviruses that cause common colds. India cited as an example. The recent flare-up in India and high rates of death in humid and tropical South American countries have shown that weather patterns don’t dramatically affect the virus’s ability to infect a population.
Where does this leave us?
Ten months down the line you’d expect us to have more answers, but the truth is that there is still much about this coronavirus we do not understand. If we can still be having debates on the efficacy of something as simple as a mask and its impact on the spread of the virus, then it’s debatable how long science will take to address these far more complex questions.
Every day that passes in the “void of reliable information” created by Covid is another day that sees death rates climb, conspiracy theories flourish, and general misinformation flood the airwaves and internet. It becomes even more difficult to separate the chaff from fact and a recent publication by a group of Chinese scientists serves as an example in point.
Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese virologist, has been in hiding in the US after claiming that the Chinese authorities knew about the novel coronavirus long before the first cases were officially reported in Wuhan last December. She has also claimed that Covid-19 was created in a Chinese military laboratory and says that the worldwide pandemic is not of natural origin. Fox News and Tucker Carlson irresponsibly abetted Yan by inviting her onto his show to discuss her theory.
Yan and her team published their findings on Zenodo in a report entitled “Unusual Features of the SARS CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route.” Although dismissed by peer review, the report is well constructed and even seasoned virologists have had their work cut out to refute it, some would say with questionable consequences.
So, we’re back to our opening question and although we have identified a few likely candidates to help explain away the massive gap in Covid mortality rates between Asia and the West, we still don’t have any clear and definitive answers. Perhaps our time would be better spent seriously addressing this question. Answers my very well convert into lives spared and science could spare us the unpleasant political ramifications of not definitively burying the conspiratorialists for good.