The race to vaccinate as many people as possible against covid-19 is under way, but unless we track who receives the vaccine we won’t be able to ensure the benefits are spread equitably. Publishing ethnicity and other demographic data must become a priority. This will be vital for countries to ensure that those hit hardest by the pandemic don’t miss out on receiving life-saving vaccines.
Detangling data to reveal patterns that may exist among subgroups of a population can be a powerful tool to address inequality. After all, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there.
Globally, breaking down covid-19 cases based on widely recorded demographic factors, such as age and sex, has been enormously helpful for our understanding of the disease. Knowing that the risk of severe disease rises with age, for instance, has helped inform government interventions.
Countries in which information on race and ethnicity for cases was published early on during the pandemic, including the US, the UK and Norway, were among the first to reveal worrying trends of people from racial and ethnic minority groups being at increased risk from covid-19. Similar patterns have since been seen in other nations that have looked for them, such as Australia and Brazil.
Collecting and publicising this kind of data can help drive governments to take action. Data published in the UK in April, which revealed that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were over-represented among critically ill covid-19 patients, prompted the UK government to launch an inquiry into the issue and led Public Health England to start recording covid-19 cases and deaths by ethnicity. In June, the UK government announced £4.3 million in funding for new research aiming to “explain and mitigate” the disparity.
Many other European countries have traditionally shied away from breaking down data by race or ethnicity, due to concerns over discrimination and privacy. But in September last year, the European Union committed to investigating the obstacles to collecting such data across member states by the end of 2021.
As countries around the world are rolling out covid-19 vaccination programmes, and given our knowledge about the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on certain subgroups, we must double down on efforts to collect ethnicity and other demographic data on covid-19 vaccinations, such as age, sex and socioeconomic status.
Surveys in the US and UK last year suggested that hesitancy about covid-19 vaccines may be more prevalent among racial and ethnic minority groups, raising concerns that this might result in lower vaccine uptake among those most at risk from the disease.
Similar trends have already been observed with other vaccinations. A 2017 study in England found uptake of the shingles vaccine was lower among people of Black or mixed ethnicity compared to white people, and last year there were concerns about lower uptake of the flu vaccineamong BAME groups in some parts of the country. Uptake of the flu vaccine has additionally been found to be lower in more deprived areas of the UK, which have also seen disproportionate numbers of deaths from covid-19.
To find out whether concerns about vaccine hesitancy are founded, and to ensure equal access to covid-19 vaccines across communities, it is crucial that governments gather and release data on who is being vaccinated in real-time. Currently, the UK government has released data on age for covid-19 vaccinations but not on ethnicity, and when I asked it wouldn’t confirm whether it is recording ethnicity data for England. Public Health Wales told me that Wales is collecting data on ethnicity but couldn’t say when it would publish. Northern Ireland’s Department of Health said they couldn’t tell me if it is recording ethnicity data, and I have requested similar information for Scotland but have yet to hear back.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is collecting data on the race and ethnicity of people who get vaccinated across the US, but this information isn’t yet publicly available. Figures released for Mississippi, North Carolina and Maryland suggest a disproportionate number of vaccines administered as of 8 January went to white people relative to their share of the population in those states.