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Covid UK: How ‘Oracle’ scientist battled virus himself before launching symptom-tracking app

The scientist whose Covid-tracking app established that loss of smell is a key symptom has said that 80 per cent of people who enter intensive care units with coronavirus are obese and are more likely to die.

King’s College London epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector, 62, said he suffered very mild Covid while he was developing his Covid Symptom Study app last year, but revealed he was ‘too busy’ to let it stop him.

The professor, whose Zoe app has tracked the disease using the personal data of 4.6 million people since last March, said there is a clear link between the countries worst affected by the virus and ‘those with the most obese people’. 

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Prof Spector also said he is ’95 per cent certain we’re going to have a relaxed summer and be fine for the rest of this year’ despite a third wave feared to be sweeping Europe.

It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson launches an anti-obesity drive, with GPs to prescribe more than 700,000 people diet plans, apps and wearable activity trackers.

Boris Johnson

King’s College London professor Tim Spector, who had very mild Covid last year, said there is a clear link between the countries worst affected by the virus and ‘those with the most obese people’ and ultra-processed foods. It comes as Boris Johnson launches an anti-obesity drive, with GPs to prescribe more than 700,000 people diet plans and wearable activity trackers

A study by the World Obesity Federation found that the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths have happened in countries where more than half the population is overweight

A study by the World Obesity Federation found that the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths have happened in countries where more than half the population is overweight

Positive Covid tests fell 7.5 per cent over the past seven days to 5,587 a day

Positive Covid tests fell 7.5 per cent over the past seven days to 5,587 a day

WHY DOES BEING OVERWEIGHT MAKE COVID WORSE? 

People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop severe Covid-19 and die from it because they are generally less healthy and have worse immune systems.

The coronavirus has been found to prey on people who don’t have good health – it causes fluid build-up in the lungs, blood clotting, swelling in the airways and blood vessels, intense fever and can trigger immune over-reaction. All of these can seriously damage vital organs.

Overweight people are more likely to suffer severe versions of these effects because their bodies are already struggling to cope as a result of the strain of carrying excess fat, hormonal and chemical changes trigged by obesity, and higher rates of long-term illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. 

Fat in the belly pushes up on the diaphragm – the breathing muscle – and compresses the lungs, making them weaker and less able to chuck out the viruses when they get in, Science magazine explains. 

Blood is also more likely to clot because vessels are damaged and don’t work properly, partly because of constant swelling and irritation caused by chemicals released by fat. 

One researcher told Science obese people with Covid had ‘the stickiest blood I have ever seen’. These clots then travel to the lungs and other organs and can be deadly.

The immune system is also weaker in overweight people because fat cells intrude on organs that would normally make white blood cells, such as the bone marrow, meaning their capacity to work as normal is reduced. This means it takes longer to fight off the virus, if the body is able to do it at all.

And any organ dysfunction, such as that caused by heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or dementia, has been found to make Covid-19 worse as it preys on damaged parts of the body and worsens existing problems. All of these are reported to be more common in obese people. 

Ministers said they are committed to slimming the country’s waistlines, after an alarming study revealed a high obesity rate was partly to blame for Britain’s devastating coronavirus death toll.

World Obesity Federation research found Covid deaths have been 10 times higher in countries where at least half of adults are overweight, and they have accounted for a staggering 90 per cent of global deaths.

Thousands of lives may have been saved if the population was slimmer, experts said, and lockdown measures may not have needed to be as drastic if people were not as fat and had a lower risk of ending up in hospital.

The World Health Organisation warned the findings were a ‘wake-up call’ for the West, where sedentary jobs and processed foods mean being overweight has become the norm for many. 

Downing Street said it would pump money into NHS-led schemes to help people of all ages lose weight, with the drive particularly targeting children and people living in poorer areas.

Mr Johnson, who previously admitted he was ‘too fat’ when he was hospitalised with Covid last spring, said: ‘Losing weight is hard, but making small changes can make a big difference. Being overweight increases the risk of becoming ill with Covid.’   

Prof Spector came down with a solid cough as he was frantically getting the app ready for launch during the first wave last year, but admitted that he was ‘too busy’ to let it stop him.

He said he was astonished by the success of the app, which is known informally as the Zoe app after the company that developed it and gave British policymakers an unprecedented insight into the nature of the virus through real-time, data-driven reports.

With 4.6 million people having signed up and logged symptoms since its launch on March 24, 2020, officials found that loss of smell was a key symptom. 

Other patients were discovered to be suffering from purplish Covid-linked skin rashes, dubbed ‘Covid toes’ and ‘Covid tongue’, while the app also gathered data on long Covid and the mental health consequences of the virus. 

Crucially, the app established a link between countries with high coronavirus death tolls and obesity levels. Deprivation was also judged by health officials a significant risk factor, with those living in poverty exposed by poor diets rich in processed foods.  

‘We eat the most ultra-processed food of any country in Europe,’ the epidemiologist told the Sunday Telegraph. ‘That’s the enemy.’ 

‘Eighty per cent of people in ICUs are obese… Obese people are likely to be on poor diets, which leads to a weakened immune system and a weakened microbial system. 

‘You can easily see that the countries that have been worst affected by Covid tend to be those with the most obese people and those with the highest proportion of ultra-processed foods. I’m fairly convinced that the quality of the diet and the state of the gut microbes are a key factor in whether we get infected with it, then how quickly our immune system deals with it – or fails to, and then we end up in an ICU and die.’

The WOF report found that significant proportions of Covid deaths happened in fatter countries like the UK and US which, combined, have suffered around 643,000 deaths from the virus – a quarter of the world’s total. 

The report, which compared countries’ obesity rates and Covid death tolls, found that the coronavirus death rate was 10 times higher in countries where 50 per cent or more of the population is overweight. 

It saw that 2.2million of the world’s 2.5million deaths so far had happened in countries with these high obesity rates.

‘Increased bodyweight is the second greatest predictor of hospitalisation and a high risk of death for people suffering from Covid-19,’ the report said.

‘Only old age rates as a higher risk factor. The unprecedented economic costs of Covid-19 are largely due to the measures taken to avoid the excess hospitalisation and need for treatment of the disease. 

NHS England figures show 79 per cent of over-55s in the country had at least one dose of the vaccine by March 14, but London is significantly lagging behind in uptake

‘Reducing one major risk factor, overweight, would have resulted in far less stress on health services and reduced the need to protect those services from being overwhelmed.’

Prof Spector also revealed that he is ’95 per cent certain we’re going to have a relaxed summer and be fine for the rest of this year’, even as ministers today poured cold water on hopes for normality this year.

The King’s College scientist said he expects some resurgence in cases next winter, but does not ‘see these major lockdowns happening again’. 

Instead, ‘most of our life should get back pretty much to normal’, with the disease becoming part of life and annual vaccinations accounting for mutant strains.

Pointing to data showing around 75 per cent protection against Covid after two months with a single jab, as more than half of adults said to be vaccinated, he added: ‘I’m feeling personally very relaxed’. 

Prof Spector also hit out at the Government’s ‘parochial’ reaction to the pandemic last year, saying that ‘learning from other countries was a big thing we didn’t do’.

Having called for ‘locking down early’ and ‘using masks’, he argued: ‘We assumed the British science was the best in the world. And for some things it clearly wasn’t.’

The scientist suggested this was caused by a ‘confusion in leadership’, before taking aim at the politicisation of coronavirus data – in particular by the BBC.

‘I’m not very good at politics and you do realise that data are politics, you see this every day,’ Prof Spector told the Sunday Telegraph. 

‘What data the BBC decides to put on their website are highly selected, depending on whether they want to keep people frightened or they want to give people a boost. We tend to go in these black-or-white scenarios, which I find really hard to deal with.’ 


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