Most elderly COVID-19 victims would not have died otherwise, major study claims

A leading scientist has warned Britons to heed the lockdown because “COVID-19 is as dangerous as Ebola” – as a study found most elderly people killed by the disease would not have died otherwise.

Professor Calum Semple, who is leading the largest study of coronavirus patients in the UK, said it showed more than a third of those who had been admitted to hospital had died.

“That’s the same for those admitted to hospital with Ebola,” he told a virtual news conference.

“People need to hear this and get it into their heads. The reason the government is keen for people to stay at home until the outbreak is quietening down is because this is an incredibly dangerous disease.

“We still see isolated egregious examples of selfishness where people think it is ok to meet up in the park and share a four-pack of beer.

“There is a particular group of younger people who are taking an ‘I’m alright Jack, this doesn’t bother me’ attitude. They don’t understand they are just as likely to catch it and transmit it, and that will affect the rest of society.”

Professor Semple leads the Coronavirus Clinical Characterisation Consortium, which has published detailed clinical information on almost 17,000 patients admitted to hospitals across the UK.

More from Covid-19

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found:

  • Death rates were high among elderly patients, and most of those who did not survive were admitted to hospital with symptoms of COVID-19 and “would not have died otherwise”
  • Of the patients traced for 14 days or more, half (49%) have been discharged, with a further 17% still being treated. 33% have died.
  • Pregnant women are not at an increased risk of death
  • Obesity is associated with mortality, even after adjusting for other health conditions

Although the study backed up the conclusions of previous research on COVID-19, the findings on the deaths of elderly people would appear to contradict a widely held belief that a large proportion of those older victims would have died imminently anyway.

It also confirms that severe disease is more common in older age groups and men.

But Professor Semple said obese people, who had a BMI over 30, also had a higher risk of being admitted to intensive care and dying.

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“Fat cells secrete chemicals that increase the inflammatory state in the body,” he said.

“If you are a big person you are also more likely to have had a tough childhood and a tough life, brought up in an environment where you are exposed to multiple deprivations.

“Together they make it a very tough ride for these people when they catch COVID-19.”

The researchers hope to identify risk factors that might signal patients that will have a poor outcome.

Professor Peter Openshaw, an expert in experimental medicine at Imperial College London and part of the consortium, said the study provided “sobering figures” and that the virus was “presenting quite a lot of strange twists and turns.”

“It’s not just behaving like a cough virus,” he said.

“There are anecdotal reports of people starting off with a cough and shortness of breath, then seeming to get better, and then returning with a more systemic (whole body) disease, inflammation in the blood vessels and a tendency to form blood clots in different parts of the body.

“So it’s proving a much more complex disease than we initially thought. It is remarkable to see a new disease unfolding in front of our eyes.”

According to the study, published on the medRxiv website, 83% of patients have been treated on hospital wards without being admitted to critical care. Yet 31% of those still died.

Dr Annemarie Docherty, another of the researchers and an honorary consultant in critical care at the University of Edinburgh, said it was wrong to assume that the sickest patients will automatically be admitted to intensive care because it may not be in their best interests.

“If you are ventilated you are unable to communicate with your family, rates of delirium are significantly higher and if there is little or no aspiration to recover, we are not doing these patients any favours by bringing them to the ICU,” she said.

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