Stark link between obesity and Covid deaths revealed

Nine out of 10 deaths from coronavirus have occurred in countries with high obesity levels, according to World Health Organization-backed research that sets out the stark correlation between excessive weight and lives lost to the disease.

The landmark study from the World Obesity Federation (WOF), which represents scientists, medical professionals and researchers from more than 50 regional and national obesity associations, showed mortality rates were 10 times higher where at least 50 per cent of the population was overweight.

It offers fresh insight into why people in some countries die at far greater rates after catching the virus than in others.

Age has been seen as the biggest predictor for severe outcomes, which has led to priority being given to older people in most countries’ Covid-19 vaccine rollouts. But the WOF said its report “shows for the first time that overweight populations come a close second”. It is now calling for this group to be prioritised for immunisation.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said the report “must act as a wake-up call to governments globally” to tackle obesity.

Analysis of both the latest mortality data from Johns Hopkins University, and the WHO Global Health Observatory data on obesity, demonstrated that 2.2m of the 2.5m global deaths were in countries with high levels of obesity.

Scientists have sought to understand the difference in death rates between Asian and western countries, as well as low income and high-income countries. The WOF suggests the discovery of the “common denominator” of obesity is an important part of the explanation.

Tim Lobstein, senior policy adviser to the WOF and the report’s author, said death rates were 10 times higher in countries where more than 50 per cent of the population were overweight. The increase in national death rates where countries exceeded the threshold of 50 per cent of population overweight was “dramatic”.

The report, released ahead of world obesity day on Thursday, did not find a single example of a country where less than 40 per cent of the population was overweight having high death rates. On the other hand, no country with high death rates — at least 100 per 100,000 — had less than 50 per cent of its population overweight. 

Vietnam, for example, has the lowest recorded death rate in the world and the second lowest level of overweight people: just 0.04 per 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 and 18.3 per cent of adults overweight, according to WHO data.

In contrast, the UK has the third highest death rate in the world and the fourth highest obesity rate, at 184 deaths per 100,000 and 63.7 per cent of adults overweight. It is followed by the US with about 152 deaths per 100,000 and almost 68 per cent obese.

Tedros said: “The correlation between obesity and mortality rates from Covid-19 is clear and compelling.” Investment in public health and co-ordinated, international action was needed to tackle the root causes of obesity, he added, as “one of the best ways for countries to build resilience in health systems post-pandemic”.

Lobstein, visiting professor at the University of Sydney and a former WHO adviser, said governments had failed to tackle obesity over many years despite UN targets. Yet Covid-19 was only the latest infection exacerbated by weight issues: “We have seen it in the past with Mers, H1N1 and other respiratory diseases,” he added.

The report also made an economic argument for action to control obesity, saying the costs of locking down societies to prevent health services being overrun “could have been significantly mitigated if governments had tackled population weight issues before the pandemic”.

Of the $28tn projected by the IMF as the global cost in lost economic output worldwide up to 2025, “at least $6tn will be directly attributable to the issue of populations living with excess weight”, it argued.

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