Study investigates COVID-19’s impact on South Asian communities

Canadians of South Asian descent have a five to 10-times higher risk of COVID-19 infection and a 1.5 to two-times higher risk of death compared to white Canadians. A new study aims to find out why.

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Researchers in Vancouver are seeking participants for a study on immune response and vaccine hesitancy among the South Asian population, a group that has a five- to 10-times higher risk of COVID-19 infection and a 1.5- to two-times higher risk of death compared to white Canadians.

“Across Canada, and in other places around the world, we’ve seen people in South Asian communities harder hit,” said Scott Lear, a professor in Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences. “In terms of community health, we’ve seen a higher proportion of South Asian people test positive. And in cases of severe disease, when they’re admitted to hospital, outcomes tend to be worse.”

The study of 3,000 South Asians in the Lower Mainland and the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario will seek to understand if ethnic differences can be explained by unique socio-cultural factors, such as multi-generational households, occupational factors such as doing essential front-line work, and biological factors, such as differences in susceptibility or response to infection and vaccination.

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Lear explained that while multi-generational living may be more common among South Asian people, COVID-19 transmission from younger people who are working outside the home to older parents who are living with them is a common path for transmission.

“For any family, that can be devastating,” he said.

The $1.5-million study, which is funded by the federal government through the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, will follow participants from enrolment forward to collect contextual information, including living and work conditions, as well as future interactions with the health-care system, including positive COVID-19 tests after vaccination. A drop of blood will be collected at the start, and again later, to measure immune markers.

Lear said that while there is no reason to believe that COVID-19 vaccines are less effective for people of South Asian descent, it is important to look at all possibilities in a community that has been so impacted by the virus. The original clinical trials for many of the vaccines enrolled largely people of European descent or Blacks and Hispanics, he said.

“It is imperative that we study the immune response to vaccines not only in the general population, but in priority populations, such as the South Asian community,” said Scott Halperin, co-chair of the Vaccine Surveillance Reference Group and principal investigator with the Canadian Research Immunization Network. “We need to ensure that the level of antibodies achieved is comparable across various populations.”

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The study will also look at why some people may be hesitant about being vaccinated, said Lear, who is the lead principal investigator in B.C.

In November, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said B.C. was seeing “quite a lot of transmission in the South Asian community, particularly in the Fraser Valley and the Fraser Health region.”

Fraser Health has been working with community leaders to improve messaging, solve problems around vaccine access, and target hot spots with clinics.

The COVIDCommUNITY-South Asian study is being led by the Population Health Research Institute (PHRI) of McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences. Interested participants in B.C. can contact Lear and his team at 604-806-8242 or pure@sfu.ca.

gluymes@postmedia.com

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