The race to vaccinate as many people as possible against Covid-19 is ongoing, but unless we track who is receiving the vaccine, we cannot ensure that the benefits are fairly shared. Publication of ethnic and other demographic data must be a priority. This will be vital for countries to ensure that those hardest hit by the pandemic do not go without life-saving vaccines.
Untangling data to uncover patterns that may exist between subsets of a population can be a powerful tool in eliminating inequality. After all, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it is there.
Globally, the breakdown of Covid-19 cases based on widespread demographic factors such as age and gender has been hugely important to our understanding of the disease. Knowing that the risk of serious illnesses increases with age, for example, has helped inform government interventions.
Countries that released racial and ethnicity information for cases at the start of the pandemic, including the US, UK and Norway, were among the first to show worrying trends in people from races and ethnic minorities who are at increased risk from Covid – 19. Similar patterns have since been observed in other countries that have looked for them, such as Australia and Brazil.
Collecting and publishing this type of data can help governments take action. Data released in the UK in April showing that black, Asian and ethnic (BAME) people were overrepresented among critically ill obese patients 19 prompted the UK government to investigate the problem and lead public health England starts recording Covid-19 cases and deaths by ethnicity. In June the UK government announced a £ 4.3 million funding for new research to “explain and moderate” the differences.
Many other European countries have traditionally shied away from breaking down data by race or ethnicity due to concerns about discrimination and privacy. However, in September last year, the European Union committed to investigate the barriers to collecting such data in Member States by the end of 2021.
As countries around the world are implementing Covid-19 vaccination programs and we know our knowledge of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain subgroups, we need to step up efforts to collect ethnic and other demographics about Covid-19 vaccinations, such as age, Gender and socio-economic status.
Surveys in the US and UK last year indicated that hesitation about Covid-19 vaccines is more common among racial and ethnic minorities, raising concerns that this will result in lower vaccine intake among the most vulnerable People at risk of illness.
Similar trends have been observed with other vaccinations. A 2017 study in England found that shingles vaccine intake was lower in people of black or mixed ethnicity compared to whites, and last year there were concerns about lower flu vaccine intake in some parts of the country BAME groups. In addition, flu vaccine uptake was found to be lower in more deprived areas of the UK, which have also seen a disproportionate number of deaths from Covid-19.
In order to find out if concerns about vaccine reluctance are legitimate and to ensure equal access to Covid-19 vaccines in all communities, it is critical that governments collect and publish real-time data on who is being vaccinated. Currently, the UK government has released data on age for Covid-19 vaccinations, but not on ethnicity. When I asked her, she was unable to confirm whether ethnic data is being collected for England. Public Health Wales informed me that Wales collects ethnicity data but cannot say when it will be released. The Ministry of Health of Northern Ireland said they had no way of telling me if they were recording ethnic data and I have requested similar information for Scotland but have not yet received a response.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they collect racial and ethnicity data from people who are vaccinated in the U.S. However, this information is not yet publicly available. Figures released for Mississippi, North Carolina, and Maryland suggest that a disproportionately large number of vaccines given as of Jan. 8 went to whites relative to their population in those states.
We need to have more transparency about who is being vaccinated in order to hold governments accountable.