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

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

In addition, nurses, healthcare assistants and junior doctors are more likely to have higher levels of COVID-19 antibodies when compared to more senior members of medical staff, the same study has found. 

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

The study, carried out by NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) East Midlands and NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre, focussed on hospital staff working at the University Hospitals of Leicester (UHL) NHS Trust, one of the largest, and most ethnically diverse, hospital trusts in the UK. Researchers were then able to determine which groups of staff were most likely to be ‘seropositive’.

Seropositive means that a person has detectable antibodies to a specific condition and if a person has COVID-19 antibodies it means that they have been infected with coronavirus at some stage. In this case, the researchers were looking at coronavirus antibody levels among hospital workers.

UHL is the only acute hospital trust serving the population of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland and cares for the vast majority of hospital attenders with COVID-19 from these areas.

In May, a voluntary blood test was introduced allowing staff members to find out whether they had developed antibodies against COVID-19. 

Professor Kamlesh Khunti, Director of the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (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, led the study.

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.”

Fellow researcher Christopher Martin, an Academic Clinical Fellow in Infectious Diseases at the University of Leicester, concluded: “We would urge that these findings are used to inform occupational risk assessments for frontline workers as we continue the battle to protect NHS staff against coronavirus.”

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 has also been concern over the safety of health workers with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimating a six-fold increased prevalence among those working in health or social care settings as compared to the general population.

Furthermore, 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 study, UK-REACH, led by Dr Pareek is also urgently investigating the increased risk of COVID-19 amongst ethnic minority healthcare workers. 

Published on: 1 Dec 2020