Matt Hancock has today urged people to take vitamin D to help boost their overall health amid mounting evidence it can protect against Covid-19.
The Health Secretary claimed the Government would be ramping up public health messaging to encourage people supplement with vitamin D.
The NHS recommends taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D — the equivalent of one salmon fillet — a day to keep bones and muscles healthy in the winter. But health chiefs have since advised Britons take the supplement all year because lockdowns are driving people indoors.
Mr Hancock U-turned on previous comments the ‘sunshine vitamin’ has ‘no impact’ on Covid-19, saying he has asked scientists to review the evidence again.
It comes after scientists and MPs lambasted Mr Hancock for ‘ignoring’ the increasing number of studies which show vitamin D is linked with better Covid-19 outcomes.
Several studies have shown those with a vitamin D deficiency, which is common in Britain, are more likely to catch the coronavirus, get serious disease or die.
A lack of high quality studies that definitely prove cause and effect has led Queen Mary University of London to launch a large study of 5,000 volunteers this autumn.
Officials estimate one in five Britons are deficient in vitamin D — the equivalent of 13million Britons.
Deficiency is more common in older people, in people who are overweight, and in black and Asian people – all of the groups who are at increased risk of becoming very ill with Covid.
Matt Hancock has urged people to take vitamin D to help boost overall health amid mounting evidence it can protect against Covid-19. He is pictured in Parliament yesterday
In response to Labour’s Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) who asked about research into vitamin D, Mr Hancock told MPs this morning: ‘On the point about vitamin D, I have asked the scientists to look once again at the impact of vitamin D on resistance to immunity.
‘There has been some updated evidence that has come to light in the last few weeks and I want to make sure this is fully taken account.
UK DOCTORS FINALLY LAUNCH TRIAL OF VITAMIN D
Doctors will finally trial whether vitamin D can actually protect people from Covid-19 amid mounting evidence the 3p-a-day supplement could be a life-saver.
Researchers from Queen Mary University of London will recruit 5,000 volunteers to take the vitamin for six months if they do not already take high doses.
Trial volunteers will receive tablets containing either 800 IU or 3,200 IU a day of the vitamin, which they will be asked to take for six months.
There will also be a control group taking the NHS recommended amount of 400IU a day.
Although this level is advised for the winter months, experts said taking more wouldn’t pose a risk as the vitamin is harmless and the body simply removes any excess levels.
But there is no group not taking a vitamin supplement in the trial, meaning it is impossible for the experts to accurately compare differences between the groups.
Researchers will track the incidence of doctor-diagnosed or laboratory-confirmed acute respiratory infections in participants during the trial, to see whether the supplements have affected their risk or severity of infection.
Volunteers will also be required to do a finger-prick test to check their vitamin D levels.
Dr David Jolliffe, from Queen Mary University of London, said the study had the potential to give a ‘definitive answer’ on whether vitamin D could protect against coronavirus.
‘Vitamin D supplements are low in cost, low in risk and widely accessible; if proven effective, they could significantly aid in our global fight against the virus,’ he said.
Professor Adrian Martineau, who is also involved in the study, said: ‘There is mounting evidence that vitamin D might reduce the risk of respiratory infections, with some recent studies suggesting that people with lower vitamin D levels may be more susceptible to coronavirus.
‘Vitamin D deficiency is more common in older people, in people who are overweight, and in Black and Asian people – all of the groups who are at increased risk of becoming very ill with Covid-19.
‘The UK government already recommends that people take a low-dose vitamin D supplement over the winter to protect their bone health, but we do not know if this will have an effect on Covid-19 or if higher doses might be able to provide protection against the virus.
‘The CORONAVIT trial will test whether higher doses of vitamin D might offer protection against winter respiratory infections including Covid-19.’
‘And I can also tell her that we will be increasing the public messaging around vitamin D to make sure that people get the message that vitamin D can help with your broad health and that there is no downside to taking it – and therefore people should consider that.’
Health chiefs have long advised that vitamin D supplements should be taken by adults in the UK over the winter, when there is less sunshine.
The body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin when outdoors. It can also be obtained by dietary sources such as oily fish, eggs, fortified margarines, and some breakfast cereals.
NHS updated its guidance this spring to say people should consider supplementing all year round because lockdowns may cause people to spend more time indoors due to the lockdown.
The advice was year-round supplementation was already in place for the elderly, who may be housebound, and those with dark skin.
The NHS says: ‘If you have dark skin – for example you have an African, African-Caribbean or south Asian background – you may also not get enough vitamin D from sunlight.’
But Public Health England (PHE) stressed the new advice was not because there was proof vitamin D protected against Covid-19.
Debate came to a head two weeks ago when Matt Hancock wrongly told the House of Commons in September that a Government-funded ‘trial’ investigating vitamin D showed it did not ‘appear to have any impact’.
But officials have since admitted that no clinical trials had taken place and claim it was a slip of the tongue from the health secretary – who was also staunchly opposed to face masks in the spring and claimed they were ‘extremely weak’ in stopping Covid-19’s spread.
Mr Hancock was told to ‘get his facts straight’ after his flippant dismissal of vitamin D as a potential coronavirus treatment despite a growing body of evidence from around the world suggesting it works.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Morgan told MailOnline the secretary of state ‘needs to be listening, not dismissing’.
She added: ‘I hope Matt Hancock will take a less flippant approach to potential treatments in future and get his facts straight before making such comments. We’re in a crisis, it’s time for politicians to stop playing science and listen to the experts.’
Following the debacle, Mr Hancock agreed to meet experts to to hear the growing case for the vitamin.
It is likely he will find that during the pandemic, a number of studies have suggested the immune-boosting vitamin could offer some level of protection.
The most comprehensive so far was that conducted by the University of Cordoba in Spain and published last month.
Researchers gave high doses of calcifediol – a type of vitamin D supplement – to 50 patients hospitalised with the disease.
There were no deaths among volunteers receiving the vitamin and all 50 patients were eventually discharged by the end of the study. But two of the 26 patients in a control group, who were not given the tablets, died.
Just one patient given calcifediol felt ill enough to be admitted to intensive care, whereas half of the participants in the control group were taken to ICU and two died.
But many scientists have criticised the study, saying its sample size is too small for any firm conclusions to be drawn about the impact of Vitamin D.
A study by Tehran University, in Iran, and Boston University analysed data from 235 hospitalised patients with Covid-19. Patients who had sufficient vitamin D – of at least 30 ng/mL— were 51.5 per cent less likely to die from the disease. Although no one in the study under age 40 died, fatalities (red) were more common among vitamin D deficient people (under the black line) of all ages
University of Chicago researchers studying 500 Americans’ vitamin D levels found 60 per cent higher rates of Covid-19 among people with low levels of the ‘sunshine vitamin’
Nonetheless, it was the most promising result for trials of the vitamin so far, and corresponds to earlier research that fixing vitamin deficiency might cut mortality rates by half.
A Northwestern University study, published in May, found Covid-19 patients with a severe Vitamin D deficiency are twice as likely to experience major complications and die.
Nearly 99 per cent of Covid-19 patients who are vitamin D deficient die, according to a study from Indonesian researchers who analysed hospital records of 780 people who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
Results revealed 98.9 per cent of infected patients defined as vitamin D deficient — below 20ng/ml — died. Yet this fell to just 4.1 per cent for patients who had enough of the nutrient.
Researchers warned the study was not definitive, however, because the patients with high vitamin D levels were healthier and younger.
Another study by Tehran University, in Iran, and Boston University, found hospital Covid-19 patients who had sufficient vitamin D – of at least 30 ng/mL— were 51.5 per cent less likely to die from the disease.
The study of 235 hospitalised patients with Covid-19 also showed those with enough vitamin D had a significantly lower risk of falling seriously ill or needing ventilation.
Patients who had plenty of the nutrient also had less inflammation – often a deadly side effect of Covid-19.
However, there were flaws in these studies, such as a lack of acknowledgement of confounding factors, such as smoking, and social economic status, which were were not recorded for all patients but could have an impact on illness severity.
Some participants’ underlying health conditions were not defined, despite having a major impact on disease severity.
There have also been at least three studies which have suggested those who have enough vitamin D are less likely to catch the coronavirus in the first place.
The most recent study was published last week, by University of Birmingham.
Researchers analysed blood samples from 392 NHS workers at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust – one of the British hospitals that took the most Covid-19 patient – in a two-week period in May.
Seventy-two per cent of NHS workers who were lacking vitamin D also tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies — a sign of previous infection. This compared to just 51 per cent for those who had a sufficient amount.
The difference was even greater among those of a Black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME); a whopping 94 per cent who were vitamin D deficient had antibodies, compared to 52 per cent in those who were not.
A total of 72 per cent of NHS workers in Birmingham who were lacking in the ‘sunshine vitamin’ (left column) also tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in the blood — a sign of previous infection. This compared to just 51 per cent for those who had a sufficient amount (right column)
Vitamin D levels were lower in the BAME ethnic group compared to the white ethnic group
In those with Vitamin D deficiency, levels were lower in BAME ethnicity compared to white ethnicity
It backed up a study published online in July by Tel Aviv University, Israel, who looked retrospectively at vitamin D levels in 782 people who tested positive for coronavirus and compared them with healthy people.
People with vitamin D deficiency — below 30 ng/ml — were 45 per cent more likely to test positive and 95 per cent more likely to be hospitalised.
But the study’s reliability was limited by the fact it did not check vitamin D levels at the time of infection. It used blood samples from before infection. It also did not take into consideration underlying health conditions of the patients, which can make the disease more serious.
Another study by the University of Chicago assessed 500 Americans’ vitamin D levels before analysing their risk of catching Covid-19.
They found 60 per cent higher rates of Covid-19 among people with low levels of the ‘sunshine vitamin’, according to the paper published in the journal JAMA in September.
However the researchers did not check for other compounding factors. It is unclear whether or not volunteers were vitamin D deficient at the time of their coronavirus tests. People’s age, job and where they lived — factors which greatly increase the chance of contracting the virus — were also not considered.
Arguments on the link between Vitamin D deficiency and its observed link with poor Covid-19 outcomes started to gather pace as early as May.
The problem lies in the fact there is a lack of gold-standard medical research – the randomised controlled trials which compare people who are given the supplement with those who are not to see which group fares better.
Although studies have frequently observed a link between the two conditions — Covid-19 and vitamin D deficiency — it does not prove causation.
Scientists have previously noted that vitamin D levels drop during illness, which may explain why Covid-19 patients studied when they are seriously ill appear to also inadequate levels.
Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine at University of Glasgow, previously told MailOnline: ‘Blood vitamin D levels go down when people develop serious illness.
‘The same thing happens to other blood tests such as blood cholesterol, or blood zinc levels, which also fall when someone is sick. These changes are part of what is called the acute phase response. Moreover, the sicker people are, the more exaggerated are these changes.
‘This means that it is likely the occurrence of illness that is leading to lower blood vitamin D levels… and not that low vitamin D levels, are causing Covid-19.’
University of Glasgow academics, including Professor Sattar, refuted the theory of vitamin D protection based on their own work published in May.
They studied vitamin D levels in 449 people from the UK Biobank who had tested positive for Covid-19.
They found vitamin D deficiency was associated with an increased risk in infection — but not after adjustment for ethnicity.
It led to the team to conclude their ‘findings do not support a potential link between vitamin D concentrations and risk of Covid-19 infection’.
But given vitamin D supplements are so cheap – as little as 13p a pill – some researchers have called for it to be considered as a prevention strategy.
Professor David Thickett, from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, said: ‘Our results, combined with existing evidence further demonstrates the potential benefits of vitamin D supplementation in individuals at risk of vitamin D deficiency or who are shown to be deficient as a way to potentially alleviate the impact of Covid-19.’
And researchers from Brussels Free University, Belgium, have also claimed giving out vitamin D supplements could be an ‘inexpensive mitigation strategy’.
In June, they found the risk of men being hospitalised with coronavirus was a fifth higher in those who were deficient in the ‘sunshine vitamin’.
Officials estimate one in five Britons are deficient in vitamin D — the equivalent of 13million Britons. But the rate is up to 90 per cent in people with darker skin, such as BAME populations who are known to be at greater risk from Covid-19.
William Henley, a professor of medical statistics, University of Exeter, previously told MailOnline: ‘Previous studies have linked reduced levels of vitamin D with increased susceptibility to acute viral infections and autoimmune disease.
‘In the UK and northern European latitudes, vitamin D deficiency is a public health concern because ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation is of insufficient intensity for vitamin D synthesis during winter months.
‘This is a particular concern for people with dark skin, such as those of African, African-Caribbean or south Asian origin, who will need to spend longer in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D as someone with lighter skin.’
The University of East Anglia previously found that Covid-19 cases and deaths were linked with the level of vitamin D deficiency across the world.
They looked at average levels of vitamin D in populations of 20 European countries and compared them with Covid-19 infection and death rates at the time.
The authors said at the time of publication in May: ‘The most vulnerable group of population for Covid-19 is also the one that has the most deficit in vitamin D.’
A correlation graph showing the relationship between levels of viamin D (bottom, measured in nmol/l) compared to infection numbers of coronavirus by the University of East Anglia. Countries with low vitamin D levels tend to have the highest case rates per million – but the graph was from a study in May, when outbreaks looked very different to how they do now and testing was patchy in most countries