In the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we learned that obesity is a significant risk factor for severe COVID-19 and deaths. Obese people are likely to suffer from other medical conditions, including diabetes and heart problems, which are also risk factors for COVID-19. As the months went by, experts explained that obesity might be an even bigger risk factor than initially believed. Even people who are overweight are at risk of developing a more severe form of the illness. The CDC confirmed these findings back in October, when it updated its coronavirus guidelines, putting tens of millions of Americans on alert that they might be at risk of severe COVID-19 on account of their weight.
More recently, vaccine studies have pointed out that overweight people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 might need a third dose sooner than people with normal BMIs. Obesity impacts the immune response, reducing the number of neutralizing antibodies that the vaccine produces. Earlier this week, the World Obesity Federation (WOF) released a new study on obesity and COVID-19, revealing a “dramatic correlation” between COVID-19 deaths and obesity rates.
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WOF is a non-profit associated with the WHO. The organization used the available COVID-19 statistics from John Hopkins University (COVID-19 mortality) and the WHO (obesity data) to conclude that some 2.2 million of the more than 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths registered so far were in countries with high levels of obesity.
The death rate was 10 times higher in countries where more than 50% of the population is overweight, including the UK and the US. The UK registered 184 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people, the world’s third-highest fatality rate. The UK has the fourth-highest obesity rate in the world, and 63.7% of adults are considered overweight.
The US reported almost 152.5 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 cases so far, which is the fourth-highest death rate in the world. Nearly 68% of the population is classified as obese, according to the WOF. The US has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths overall, at more than 533,000.
At the other end of the spectrum are countries like Vietnam, which has the lowest COVID-19 death rate in the world — 0.04 deaths per 100,000 cases. Vietnam also has the second-lowest rate of obesity, at 18.3% of adults. Only 35 people in the country have died of COVID-19 complications since the pandemic started.
The report also indicates there’s “not a single example internationally” of a country with low levels of obesity (less than 40%) and a high death rate. The report “shows for the first time that overweight populations come a close second” risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and death after age.
“The correlation between obesity and mortality rates from COVID-19 is clear and compelling,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom in response to the WOF study, calling the research a “wake-up call” to governments globally.
Boris Johnson, who went through a more severe case of COVID-19 last year that required hospitalization, said last summer that he was “way overweight” when he was admitted to the ICU. The UK government kicked off a new program last summer with the goal of lowering obesity rates in the country. It’s still too soon to gauge how well the program is doing, according to recent reports.
The World Obesity Federation’s report on the correlation between weight and COVID-19 mortality is available at this link.
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