Health Secretary Matt Hancock was told to ‘get his facts straight’ today after shooting down vitamin D as a potential coronavirus treatment despite a growing body of evidence from around the world suggesting it works.
Experts have for months been calling for officials to look into the nutrient’s effect on Covid-19 patients due to its immune system-boosting properties.
Mr Hancock told the House of Commons last week he had green-lit a Government-funded ‘trial’ investigating vitamin D and that it did not ‘appear to have any impact’.
But officials have since admitted that no clinical trials had taken place and claim the health secretary misspoke. Mr Hancock has now agreed to meet experts to to hear the growing case for the vitamin, which the body produces when exposed to the sun.
Mr Hancock’s flippant dismissal of vitamin D has sparked fury among scientists and MPs who today said time is running out for ministers to act, as levels of the ‘sunshine vitamin’ drop dramatically in autumn and winter.
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.’
If proven to work, vitamin D could provide a cheap and easy way to protect Brits and keep the nation ticking over until a vaccine is ready. Vitamin D supplements can cost as little as 6p a tablet and are available in most pharmacies, supermarkets and health shops.
It comes after research in Spain, which MailOnline covered last month, suggested supplementing Covid-19 hospital patients with the vitamin saves lives.
With very limited treatment options – only a handful of steroid have been proven to help Covid-19 patients – the UK Government has had to rollback economically-crippling and socially-constraining lockdown measures. Ministers have threatened a second lockdown unless the virus’s current trajectory is curtailed.
Dishing out vitamin D supplements may be a cheap and safe way to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers say
But Matt Hancock told the House of Commons last week he had green-lit a Government-funded ‘trial’ investigating vitamin D and that it did not ‘appear to have any impact’
As well as in supplements, vitamin D is also available through foods, including oily fish, red meat and eggs
Mr Hancock shot down vitamin D’s potential last week in reply to a question from Dr Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing and Acton Central.
He said: ‘Vitamin D is one of the many things we have looked into, to see whether it reduces the incidence or impact of coronavirus. The results were that it does not appear to have any impact.’
Mr Hancock appeared to be referring to a review of evidence conducted by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), an arm of the Department of Health.
WHAT HAVE STUDIES INTO VITAMIN D AND COVID-19 SHOWN?
By who? Cordoba University in Spain.
What did scientists study? 50 Covid-19 hospital patients with Covid-19 were given vitamin D. Their health outcomes were compared with 26 volunteers in a control group who were not given the tablets.
What did they find? Only one of the 50 patients needed intensive care and none died. Half of 26 virus sufferers who did not take vitamin D were later admitted to intensive care and two died.
What were the study’s limitations? Small pool of volunteers. Patients’ vitamin D levels were not checked before admission. Comorbidities were not taken into consideration.
By Who? University of Chicago.
What did scientists study? 500 Americans’ vitamin D levels were tested. Researchers then compared volunteers’ levels with how many caught coronavirus.
What did they find? 60% higher rates of Covid-19 among people with low levels of the ‘sunshine vitamin’.
What were the study’s limitations?
Researchers did not check for other compounding factors. 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 not considered.
By Who? Tel Aviv University, Israel.
What did scientists study? 782 people who tested positive for coronavirus had their vitamin d levels prior to infection assessed retrospectively and compared to healthy people.
What did they find? People with vitamin D levels below 30 ng/ml – optimal – were 45 per cent more likely to test positive and 95 per cent more likely to be hospitalised.
What were the study’s limitations? Did not look at underlying health conditions and did not check vitamin D levels at the time of infection.
By Who? Brussels Free University.
What did scientists study? Compared vitamin D levels in almost 200 Covid-19 hospital patients with a control group of more than 2,000 healthy people.
What did they find? Men who were hospitalised with the infection were significantly more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency than healthy men of the same age. Deficiency rates were 67 per cent in the COVID-19 patient group, and 49 per cent in the control group. The same was not found for women.
What were the study’s limitations? Independent scientists say blood vitamin D levels go down when people develop serious illness, which the study did not take into consideration. This suggests that it is the illness that is leading to lower blood vitamin D levels in this study, and not the other way around.
By who? Inha University in Incheon, South Korea.
What did scientists study? 50 hospital patients with Covid-19 were checked for levels of all vital vitamins and compared to a control group.
What did they find? 76 per cent of them were deficient in vitamin D, and a severe vitamin D deficiency (<10 ng/dl) was found in 24 per cent of Covid-19 patients and just 7 per cent in the control group.
What were the study’s limitations?
Small sample size and researchers never accounted for vitamin levels dropping when they fall ill.
By Who?. Independent scientists in Indonesia.
What did scientists study? Checked vitamin D levels in 780 Covid-19 hospital patients.
What did they find? Almost 99% of patients who died had vitamin D deficiency. Of patients with vitamin D levels higher than 30 ng/ml – considered optimal – only per cent died.
What were the study’s limitations? It was not peer-reviewed by fellow scientists, a process that often uncovers flaws in studies.
By Who? University of Glasgow.
What did scientists study? Vitamin D levels in 449 people from the UK Biobank who had confirmed Covid-19 infection.
What did they find? Vitamin D was associated with an increased risk in infection – but not after adjustment for confounders such as 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.’
What were the study’s limitations? Vitamin D levels were taken 10 to 14 years beforehand.
By Who? University of East Anglia.
What did scientists study? Average levels of vitamin D in populations of 20 European countries were compared with Covid-19 infection and death rates at the time.
What did they find? The mean level of vitamin D in each country was ‘strongly associated’ with higher levels of Covid-19 cases and deaths. The authors said at the time: ‘The most vulnerable group of population for COVID–19 is also the one that has the most deficit in Vitamin D.’
What were the study’s limitations? The number of cases in each country was affected by the number of tests performed, as well as the different measures taken by each country to prevent the spread of infection. And it only looked at correlation, not causation.
NICE conducted a review of a limited number of studies published by June. It noted that a stronger immune system provided greater protection against Covid-19 and admitted that vitamin D boosted immune function.
But it was not convinced there was enough evidence to show that giving doses of the vitamin to already-sick Covid-19 patients provided any benefit.
Dr Huq, in a point of order in parliament on Monday this week, said: ‘[Mr Hancock] said that he had conducted a trial and there was no effect.
‘It turns out that there was no trial. The word ‘trial’ implies fresh evidence, not reheated leftovers.’
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Morgan told MailOnline: ‘This Government needs to be listening not dismissing.
‘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’
Professor Asif Ahmed, vice chancellor for healthcare at Aston University in Birmingham, said it was ‘illogical’ to say vitamin D has no effect on fighting illnesses.
He told MailOnline: ‘We can’t expect the secretary of state to know everything. So we can’t put all the blame on him, but questions have to be asked about why none of his experts have looked into this properly.
‘Even if there is a glimmer of hope – vitamin D supplements are safe, there’s no dangers to taking them unless people take way too much.
‘Even if taking vitamin D only reduces the chance of falling very ill with Covid-19, let’s do it. The amount of millions we’re spending on vaccines, public health measures and other treatments – why don’t we just make everyone take supplements over winter.
‘Even if we don’t have conclusive data, we should go ahead. The Government still doesn’t have conclusive data on wearing face masks, but we’re wearing them and they’re probably helping a little bit.
‘We can’t call for a big study into vitamin d then wait to years time and deicede. It’ll be too late then.’
As well as in supplements, vitamin D is also available through foods, mainly oily fish. Black and ethnic minority people (BAME) are more likely to be deficient because it is harder for darker skin types to absorb the nutrient from sunlight.
Some believe this may one of the reasons people from BAME backgrounds face a higher risk of dying from the illness, but this has yet to be proven.
The current advice from Public Health England and the NHS is for everybody to consider taking a daily supplement of 10 micrograms – the amount found in one small salmon fillet – during the winter months when sun is hard to come by.
‘This is because you may not be getting enough vitamin D from sunlight if you’re indoors most of the day,’ the NHS advises, saying that supplements helps to keep bones healthy.
The NHS adds: ‘There have been some reports about vitamin D reducing the risk of coronavirus. There is currently not enough evidence to support this.’
Charles Bangham, chairman in immunology at Imperial College London, told The Times: ‘PHE already recommends that everybody take a daily vitamin D supplement but the message is not getting through to a large section of the population.
‘As we move into autumn and winter, vitamin D levels will fall and more of the population will become deficient.
‘On that basis, whatever is to be done must be done swiftly. We have nothing to lose but much to gain by eradicating deficiency.’
Studies linking vitamin D deficiency to poorer health outcomes from Covid-19 have been piling up since the pandemic hit earlier in the year.
The growing body of evidence prompted Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, chief midwifery officer at NHS England, to send a memo to all maternity units in June warning that ‘women low in vitamin D may be more vulnerable to coronavirus’.
The US Government’s leading infectious disease expert, Antony Fauci, has admitted he takes vitamin D to boost his immune system against viruses.
But the most promising study into vitamin D’s effects on Covid-19 was carried out 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.
They were given 100 micrograms of the supplement over the course of a week, with 55mcg on the first day and then two booster doses of 27mcg on days three and seven. The dose was higher than the 70mcg weekly limit recommended by the NHS.
Scientists compared the participants’ health with 26 volunteers in a control group who were not given the tablets, which are normally prescribed to patients with thyroid or kidney problems.
Just one patient given calcifediol fell ill enough to be admitted to intensive care, whereas half of the participants in the control group were taken to ICU and two died.
There were no deaths among volunteers receiving the vitamin and all 50 patients were eventually discharged by the end of the study.
Independent scientists, including some from NICE, said the findings were promising but there were too many flaws in the study’s methods.
For example, the experts did not measure vitamin D levels before or after administering the drug. And participants’ underlying health conditions were not defined.
Experts now believe Covid-19 causes a catastrophic build-up of a chemical called bradykinin, which makes blood vessels leaky and drives up the risk of inflammation.
Calcifediol is one of the few hormones which regulates the bradykinin and it can also prevent the immune system from going into overdrive. But this is just a theory and has still not been proven.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘My general view is that if there is no clear cut view on vitamin D after 6 months of debate then there is nothing in it.
‘The bradykinin theory sounds plausible but it is just one of hundreds of factors that are induced by the infection and many cytokines also cause blood vessel leakage (its why you have hemorrhagic shock in several virus diseases). However. Hancock clearly claimed.’
Taking too much vitamin D can cause bone and organ damage over time, however, and scientists discouraged people from trying to self-medicate.
NEW FINGER PRICK TEST CAN SPOT VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY IN JUST 15 MINUTES
Britons can now find out whether they are deficient in vitamin D in as little as fifteen minutes, thanks to a new test.
The pioneering DIY kit — marketed as the first-of-its-kind in the world — works on just a few drops of blood taken from the finger.
It works in exactly the same way as how diabetics check their blood sugar levels, and similar kits exist to look for Covid-19 antibodies.
Blood is mixed with a solution before it is fed into a 10cm device, which analyses the sample to determine vitamin D levels. Users are able to find out their results through the Your Personalised Vitamin’s (YPV) app, by scanning the device through their phone.
It is the first vitamin D test kit to give a quantitative result, meaning the result gives a precise reading rather than just high or low.
Other do-it-yourself vitamin D tests, which do not give a quantitative result instead giving a basic reading just like a pregnancy test, are sold online and for around £10. YPV’s home-kit costs £40.
Private clinics have for years offered Britons the chance to find out whether they are deficient in the vitamin through similar tests. But these can take up to a week to give results because they must be analysed in a laboratory.
YPV offers plans to tailor the results of the test to individual needs, advising deficient Britons on exactly how much of the nutrient they need.
Chris Chapman, chief executive officer of manufacturer YPV, said: ‘We have seen a mountain of evidence that vitamin D has a positive, and at times life-saving, impact on people suffering with severe symptoms of coronavirus. It is not just the abundance of evidence that points to this conclusion.
‘We fundamentally disagree with the Health Secretary on this matter and urge him to practice his well-trodden mantra by following the science, which overwhelmingly points to the benefits of vitamin D when it comes tackling coronavirus. We are deeply disappointed about his comments.’
VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY ‘COULD RAISE COVID-19 DEATH RISK’ FOR BAME PEOPLE
BAME people may face a higher risk of dying from the coronavirus because they are more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency, scientists claim.
The pandemic is seeing higher rates of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds dying if they catch the coronavirus.
The reasons are still unknown and will likely be numerous and complicated. But some experts think a lack of vitamin D may play a role.
People with darker skin need to spend more time in sunlight in order to get the same amount of vitamin D as a person with lighter skin.
For this reason, the NHS suggests people with an African, African-Caribbean or south Asian background could benefit from take a daily supplement throughout the year.
Vitamin D may have a protective effect against severe coronavirus by regulating the immune system, and deficiencies of it have been linked to other respiratory viruses.
However, the largest study to investigate the link between BAME, Covid-19 and vitamin D in a UK population found no proof.
William Henley, a professor of medical statistics at University of Exeter, told MailOnline the link is worth exploring.
He said: ‘Preliminary research suggests vitamin D levels may also impact on the risk of people suffering from severe COVID-19 infections.
‘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.’