The British government is investigating whether built-in racial bias in some medical devices led to Black and Asian people getting sick and dying disproportionately from COVID-19.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Sunday that the pandemic had highlighted health disparities along race and gender lines. He said that a third of intensive care admissions in Britain at the height of the pandemic were people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, more than double their share of the population.
Britain’s statistics office has found that in the first year of the pandemic, up to March 2021, Black and South Asian people in the U.K. had higher death rates than their white compatriots, even after factors like occupation and underlying health conditions were taken into account.
Javid said one issue was research showing that pulse oximeters, which measure blood oxygen levels through the skin, work less well on darker skin. He called it a “systemic” worldwide issue.
“Now, I’m not saying this was deliberate by anyone, I think it’s just, it’s a systemic issue potentially, with medical devices and it may go even further than that with medical textbooks, for example,” Javid told Sky News.
Writing in the Sunday Times, he said “the possibility that a bias — even an inadvertent one — could lead to a poorer health outcome is totally unacceptable.”
He said he hoped to work with his U.S. counterpart, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and officials in other countries, to eliminate bias in the health system.
He said a U.K. review, which will also look at gender bias, will report its findings by the end of January.
Britain has recorded more than 143,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest total in Europe after Russia.
Europe is currently the only part of the world where COVID-19 cases are rising, and many countries are reintroducing restrictions to fight the surge.
In the U.K., however, cases are broadly flat and deaths and hospitalizations are slowly falling. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that he saw no need to move to the government’s winter “Plan B,” in which people would be required to wear masks indoors and advised to work from home.
— From The Associated Press, last updated at 7:30 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of early Sunday, more than 257.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.1 million.
In Europe, Dutch police have arrested more than 30 people amid unrest in The Hague and other towns in the Netherlands during protests against coronavirus restrictions on Saturday night.
The violence Saturday by groups of youths in The Hague and elsewhere was not as serious as Friday night in Rotterdam where police opened fire on rampaging rioters and arrested 51 people.
In the Asia-Pacific region, a group of international university students arrived in Australia from Singapore on Sunday after nearly a two-year pandemic absence, as a travel bubble between the two countries came into effect.
Fully vaccinated travellers from Singapore are now allowed into Melbourne or Sydney without the need to quarantine — part of Australia’s gradual reopening of its borders that began this month. Australia closed its international borders in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In the Americas, Brazil’s Health Ministry on Saturday reported 8,833 COVID-19 cases and 217 deaths in the past 24 hours. The rolling 14-day average of deaths has fallen to 228 a day, the lowest since April 2020. That compares with a toll of almost 3,000 deaths a day in Brazil at the peak of the pandemic in April of this year.
The ministry said 70 per cent of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated and 90 per cent has received a first dose. On Saturday, the ministry launched a campaign to reach 21 million Brazilians who have not returned for a second shot.
— From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 7:30 a.m. ET