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Ethnicity and seniority among NHS staff impacts COVID-19 antibody prevalence

Published: 08 December 2020

Ethnic minority healthcare workers are more likely to have built up antibodies to COVID-19, a team of NIHR-supported researchers have found. 

The study also found that nurses, healthcare assistants and junior doctors are more likely to have higher levels of COVID-19 antibodies compared with more senior members of medical staff.

The study, carried out by researchers at the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) East Midlands and NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre, focused on hospital staff working at the University Hospitals of Leicester (UHL) NHS Trust. The trust is one of the largest, and most ethnically diverse, hospital trusts in the UK. 

In May, a voluntary blood test was introduced to allow staff to find out whether they had developed antibodies against COVID-19. The researchers were then able to determine which groups of staff were most likely to be ‘seropositive’. This means that a person has detectable antibodies to a specific condition - if a person has COVID-19 antibodies, it means that they have been infected with coronavirus at some stage. 

The findings could play an important role in carrying out risk assessments among frontline workers.

Read more about NIHR COVID-19 research

The study was led by Professor Kamlesh Khunti, Director of ARC East Midlands and Professor of Primary Care Diabetes and Vascular Medicine at the University of Leicester, and Dr Manish Pareek, Associate Clinical Professor in Infectious Diseases at the University of Leicester.

Professor Khunti said: “There’s still so much to learn about COVID-19. Given that evidence has already shown there is an increased risk of infection and adverse outcomes in minority ethnic groups, there is an urgent need to understand whether antibody prevalence differs according to ethnicity and other demographic factors including job roles in hospital staff.”

Dr Pareek added: “We discovered that as well as ethnicity, specialty and seniority among NHS staff also impacted antibody prevalence. For example, the anaesthetics and intensive care unit (ICU) teams were less likely to be seropositive than emergency and acute medicine staff. This could be because of the level of exposure each team has had to infected people when treating patients.”

Since COVID-19 hit the UK, evidence has discovered that age, gender, deprivation, certain chronic conditions, obesity and minority ethnicity can significantly impact the outcome of the condition.

There have been reports of increased infection rates, morbidity and mortality in ethnic minority healthcare workers which have led to new guidance on risk assessments for NHS staff. A national NIHR-funded study, UK-REACH, led by Dr Pareek is also urgently investigating the increased risk of COVID-19 amongst ethnic minority healthcare workers.

Read more on the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) East Midlands website

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