‘Excess weight’ linked to higher risk of severe complications and death from COVID-19, PHE report concludes

The report from Public Health England also accepted that it was unclear how much the prevalence of obesity had contributed to the severity of COVID-19 in the UK.

Obese man sitting

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Even after adjustments for potential confounding factors, a high body mass index still accounted for increased risk of severe COVID-19 complications

People who are obese or “excessively” overweight are at an increased risk of serious complications and death from COVID-19, compared to those with a healthy weight, a report from Public Health England (PHE) has concluded.

This comes as the government published its latest obesity strategy aimed at helping individuals adopt a healthier lifestyle to protect themselves against COVID-19.

The PHE report brings together findings from UK and international studies published during the COVID-19 pandemic, and offers “evidence-based insights” into the link between excess weight — defined as a body mass index (BMI) range of 25kg/m2 or higher — and COVID-19.

The evidence in the report showed that the risks of excess weight — in terms of being hospitalised with COVID-19, receiving advanced levels of treatment and death — all increased progressively with increasing BMI above the healthy weight range. This was even after adjustments were made for potential confounding factors, such as demographic and socioeconomic factors.

Potential mechanisms for the link between obesity and COVID-19 outcomes, the report said, included the effects of excess adipose tissue on respiratory function, metabolic dysfunction, the cardiovascular system, enhanced inflammatory response and impaired response to infection.

The report also highlighted that there could be an interaction with weight-related comorbidities, such as type 2 diabetes, which are also associated with more severe COVID-19.

However, it acknowledged that there were limitations in the evidence available to date and that it was “currently unclear” as to what extent the relatively high prevalence of excess weight seen in the UK, compared with other countries, may have contributed to the severity of COVID-19 in the UK.

The government’s obesity strategy, launched on 27 July 2020, includes the end of deals such as ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ on food that is high in salt, sugar and fat, a ban on TV and online adverts for these foods before 21:00 and displaying calories on menus. It also includes the expansion of NHS weight management services.

Claire Anderson, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board, said that, as the “third largest profession”, pharmacy should be at the centre of the prevention agenda by supporting weight management.

“The pandemic has emphasised that collaborative working across healthcare will be essential for the success of this strategy. We want to see more integrated working across the NHS to ensure the best patient care possible, including more social prescribing referrals and linking up primary care networks further with community pharmacies,” she said. 

“It is becoming more obvious that A&E referrals and GP appointments can be treated elsewhere and pharmacies are well placed to ease pressures on other NHS services by supporting people with general wellbeing issues, such as obesity. We now need the backing from the government and NHS to build on the work our profession continues to do on a daily basis.”

In January 2020, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence released draft guidance saying community pharmacies could offer support to patients on adopting a healthier lifestyle, including stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption and managing weight.


Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, 'Excess weight' linked to higher risk of severe complications and death from COVID-19, PHE report concludes;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2020.20208217

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