Saturday 2 May 2020

Covid-19, Vitamin D, Ethnicity – and official inaction

Covid-19, Vitamin D, Ethnicity and official inaction

Garden during lockdown

During the UK lockdown and the delightful weather that accompanied it, I have spent much time in the garden, and  I remembered research that I undertook in 1990. It was part of investigation into determining the reasons why socio-economic disadvantage and Asian ethnicity might be associated with illness and reduced life-expectancy, especially in the north-west of England. The investigation concluded that the key to this problem (and it still exists) is reduced exposure to the sun and thereby low vitamin D levels in the body. A small part of the investigation was a short study of whether the ownership of a garden would influence blood levels of vitamin D.

Figure 1. Vitamin D levels determined by housing type and season

There is a difference as can be seen in Figure 1. People living in a house with a garden have on average a higher blood vitamin D level than those without a garden, in summer and in winter. Note that the averages were all below the ideal level of 30ng/ml. People whose houses do not have gardens are likely to be relatively socio-economically disadvantaged, and as we can see deficient in vitamin D. This should be officially recognised.

The study shows something else. Blood levels of vitamin D are higher in the summer than in the winter, as has been demonstrated on many occasions. This explains "winter flu", more deaths in the winter than in the summer, and perhaps why at present Covid-19 is worse in the northern hemisphere where we have been emerging from our winter than in the southern hemisphere, where the summer is just at an end. When we experience winter flu, it is not that the virus by some unnatural miracle "wakes up", it is that our immunity "goes to sleep" because of less vitamin D.

We now have the experience of Covid-19 in hospitals in south-east Asia, and their research that has demonstrated clearly the important protective action of vitamin D.


A new study has recorded blood levels of vitamin D in 780 hospital patients with Covid-19. Almost half of them died, and although Indonesia is very close to the equator, more than half of the 780 were deficient in vitamin D (blood levels less than 30ng/ml).

Figure 2. Outcome of Covid-19 related to vitamin D status

We can see in Figure 2 that of the 388 patients with blood levels of vitamin D greater than 30ng, only 16 died, but of the 179 with lowest levels of vitamin D, less than 20ng/ml, 177 died. Blood level of vitamin D was an extremely powerful predictor of either survival or death. 

I wonder how many Covid-19 patients in the UK have had blood levels of vitamin D tested.


Figure 3. Severity of Covid-19 related to vitamin D status

I have described this study in a previous post. I have displayed in Figure 3 numbers rather than percentages. 55 out of 212 patients had blood vitamin D levels greater than the ideal minimum of 30ng/ml. Of these 55, 47 had mild disease, and the disease was moderate in 4, serious in 2, and critical in 2. Only 2 patients with low blood levels of vitamin D had mild disease and 155 had moderate, severe, or critical disease. Patients who had died were not included in this study.  

The message

Look at results: based on three categories of blood levels of vitamin D, which category would you choose to be in? I would choose greater 30ng/ml. It is very clear that if you want a Covid-19 illness to be only mild, make certain that you have plenty of vitamin D in your body.

I would certainly not want my blood level to be less than 30, as if I catch Covid-19 I would want the illness to be mild, rather than moderate, serious, critical or fatal.

There has been some controversy in the past as to what the ideal blood level of vitamin D should be. It should be based on its relationship to disease, and it is quite clear from these two studies using Covid-19 as a model that the ideal blood level of vitamin D is greater than 30ng/ml (=75nmol/L).

I am pleased to report that last time my blood level of vitamin was measured, about two years ago, it was about 38ng/ml. It is unusual to have such a level unless eating fish for every meal, having a great deal of sun or UV exposure, and of course taking a supplement of vitamin D3. If taking a supplement it needs to be in a dose of about 2,000 units (= 50mcg) each day, or perhaps twice this during the present pandemic. Recommended doses of 400 units (10mcg) will not achieve a target blood level of 30, unless accompanied by a lot of fish or UV light.

The importance of vitamin D in immunity

Vitamin D is essential for maximum immunity as well as muscle-skeletal health, as I have pointed out in previous posts. The “immunity” of an individual cannot be measured directly, although critical illness or death from Covid-19 will give a good indication of low immunity. To assess immunity when not desperately ill, the best test would be the blood level of vitamin D.

The medical and scientific advisors to the government cannot be ignorant of the immune-enhancing effects of vitamin D and the need to keep the blood level above 30ng/ml to achieve maximum immunity. The information has been published in a variety of medical journals, mainly since 1983.

They should know that vitamin D is created by a non-enzymatic photochemical reaction, the direct effect of the sun on the steroid precursor 7-dehydro-cholesterol (7-DHC). This first occurred 1.2 billion years ago in plankton in the oceans. It was an important accident because the synthesis of vitamin D absorbs UV energy from the sun, thereby reducing tissue damage from UV energy. This is important in humankind today, and for example we find that melanoma is less severe in people who have generated a good blood level of vitamin D.

Evolution since 500 million years ago led to the double activation of vitamin D in the liver and kidneys, and it then became a hormone with biological functions. This function is the activation of an enzyme in the cell wall, the vitamin D receptor (VDR), which also had to evolve. Vitamin D in its activated form 1,25-(OH)D (calcitriol) combines with VDR, forming a hetero-dimer, what is called a ligand. This acts within target cells (including immune cells) and in turn activates specific genes. This process will switch on the amplification of the defensive immune process in response to infection. 

Ethnic variations

Previous posts have indicated the undue burden of the black African and Asian communities of the UK during the pandemic of Covid-19. This must be known to the network of scientific advisors, but why do they keep quiet? The government, or the public health bodies of the nations of the UK, are not releasing information concerning those who have died from Covid-19, unlike the health service of Italy which released good quality useful information. The UK government does not officially accept that black African and Asian ethnicity is a strong risk factor for the need of ventilatory support and death from Covid-19. 

In parliament last week the acting prime minister did not know the number of health service staff who had died from Covid-19. There has been no government comment on the fact that so far 23 out of 24 doctors who have died from Covid-19, were of black African or Asian ethnicity. The usual explanation of the excess deaths in ethnic minorities is socio-economic disadvantage, but the paradox of the doctors’ deaths  invalidates this. The explanation is not sociological: it is biological, vitamin D deficiency resulting from skin pigmentation and sun-avoiding behaviour.

The medical and scientific advisors to the government must be aware of this. But why silence? Why the refusal even to discuss it? We might expect that news reporters or politicians are not aware of the science of vitamin D, but some of the network of scientific advisors must know the published details.

Why no action?

During the present pandemic of Covid-19 the UK government is being advised by its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), but generally the government receives its nutritional advice from the Scientific Advisory Committee for Nutrition (SACN). Vitamin D is considered to be part of nutrition, and so SACN has, or had, a Vitamin D Working Group. It produced its 289 page report in 2016 and it was subsequently disbanded. 

The report provides a major review of the metabolism and function of vitamin D (it uses units of nmol/L and mcg doses, but I will show both)It emphasises the importance of vitamin D in musculoskeletal health.  It states that the blood level of vitamin D should not be below 10ng/ml (=25nmol/L). It states that when a vitamin D supplement is necessary, usually in pregnancy, a dose of 10mcg (400units) is safe and adequate. However it also states that it is only adequate to achieve this minimal blood level of 10ng/ml (=25nmol/L). It can be seen from the Philippine and Indonesian studies that this minimal blood level would condemn many Covid-19 patients to intensive care and possible death.

The report (now engraved in stone with no review planned) identifies a role of vitamin D in immunity but comes to no conclusion as to its usefulness. When sitting in a committee there is no necessity for speculation, and demands for "proof" can be very rigorous. Most people do not realise that proof is pragmatic, and it can change with time and circumstances. As I indicated in previous post, Sir Austin Bradford Hill in his "criteria", regards careful observation as the basis of proof when experimentation is not always possible. The acceptance that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer was based on observation (of doctors) rather than experimentation. 

And so it is with vitamin D. The studies from Indonesia and the Philippines are observational, but the observations are powerful. It is up to individuals to make their own decisions. We might decide not to smoke cigarettes, and in this we are encouraged by the government. On the basis of similar observations (and with a strong scientific basis) we might decide to take a vitamin D supplement, but at this time of national emergency the government is providing no encouragement.

The government will not go beyond the SACN report, and its advisors always refer to it. Knowledge is officially “complete”, but in reality it is incomplete. The government, and therefore the nation at this time of more than 26,000 deaths from Covid-19, is stuck with a poor quality approach to vitamin D, which holds so much potential.

The pandemic also provides a unique opportunity for clinical research into vitamin D. However if I were asked to be recruited into a clinical trial of vitamin D I would say "Yes, as long as I receive vitamin D and not the placebo". In practice I would not be accepted for such a trial as I already take a vitamin D supplement. If a vitamin D trial is conducted with the participants giving  true informed consent, I cannot foresee the trial taking place. The evidence of life-saving benefit is now so great that to accept a placebo on entry to hospital with Covid-19  could be regarded as attempted suicide, given the one third mortality risk.

In the meantime we each need to make a pragmatic decision, assuming that we have been given the necessary information, and that is only rarely the case. What is to been gained  by taking a vitamin D supplement? The answer is a much reduced risk of needing intensive care or dying. What is to be lost? Perhaps dying or requiring intensive care, but nothing else. Taking vitamin D 100,000 units as just a single dose will do no harm and will cost approximately £1. 
The studies from Indonesia and the Philippines are powerful indicators of the benefits of vitamin D, which does not actually prevent Covid-19 infection, but it prevents serious disease and death. This is new information that should be regarded as a "game changer". We must absorb this new information and incorporate it into action.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes stated: “When the facts change, I change my mind - what do you do, sir?”  The answer from the government at present is “Nothing”.


  1. Brilliant blog, David. Please excuse me for using your blog to post a poem I wrote this Wednesday....

    The Sunshine Vitamin’s Lament

    by Dr David C Anderson

    David Anderson argues that 2.5 milligrams (100,000 IU) of Vitamin D3, can safely be taken as a single dose by anybody, and would break the current coronavirus rampage of death of the D-deficient. Cost 70 pence a dose, and lasts 2 months

    D-one, D-two, but where’s D-three?
    And what’s this UV ABC?
    The sun shines on the empty beach
    The President just trumpets ‘bleach’
    While Covid kills for free

    Test anywhere, you’ll find D’s lack,
    Our priest in Italy is black:
    If ignorance is bliss for some
    For others it spells ‘Kingdom Come’
    The crown will call you back

    We all need D, but where’s the proof?
    Deficiency might be a spoof
    With every Bamey doctor’s death
    We shake our heads and save our breath
    While testing hits the roof

    Agog, we ‘wait the next absurd
    Pronouncement ‘pon the waiting herd;
    Advisers hold our life in balance
    Chris Whitty and yer Patrick Vallance
    Barge forth quite under turd

    We’ll stick to social distancing
    And let the dead go disc-dancing
    With kingdom Cummings up on high
    Alert: since BJ failed to die
    They’ll do this Brexit thing

    Committees do not like big numbers
    I fear it shakes them from their slumbers:
    One hundred thousand’s lots of noughts
    Four hundred daily’s more their torts
    So onward they just lumber

    We feel the regulator’s sighs
    He really cares for our demise
    Blue gloves and dirty masks of death
    No PPEs? - just save your breath
    Cock-handed Matt is wise!

    Does no one see the irony
    In thorny blobs of RNA!
    They’ll save the NHS indoors
    Speak platitudes until it boors
    To death, to get their way

    What? Problem-solving with a vial
    The blindest fool needs blinded trial!
    I lie in bed and dream my dreams
    But no one hears my silent screams;
    Black death may last awhile

  2. Brilliant post! Never seen graph showing gardens are good for health!

  3. Can you please provide links to the Indonesian preprint?

  4. Links studies philippines indonesia.

  5. I read the Indonesian study and even after adjusting for age, sex, and comorbidity the association of Vitamin D with death was still significant (< 0.001) with odds ratio of 7.63 for levels 20-30 (insufficient) and odds ratio of 10.12 for < 20 (deficient)

  6. This mystery why the NHS/NICE/SACN fraternity is reluctant to acknowledge that vitamin D is essential for many other functions other than rickets and osteomalacia is very frustrating. At a time when so many are suffering because of compromised immune systems, it really doesn’t make sense to me that the NHS guidelines are still only recommending just 10 Ugrams a day.
    I’m in no way a medical professional like yourself, just an oldie who was lucky to be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2010 and even luckier to be treated at the Royal Marsden in London. Wanting to try and understand why my aged body had let me down, I began to read extensively about the efficacious effects of vitamin D — not only your own excellent tome on the subject but also many publications from the group of researchers, scientists and epidemiologists brought together by Carole Baggerly under the umbrella of Grassroots Health.
    With a high percentage of the BAME community falling victim to Covid-19, it seems hard to believe that those advising the government are ignorant of the vast catalogue of vitamin D research that has taken place over the last four decades. Perhaps they should be reading a copy of your book, wherein your own research confirms that the answers are to be found in the interaction between genetically determined skin pigmentation, cultural traditions of skin cover, climatic factors of sunlight exposure and ever-present micro-organisms awaiting the opportunity to inflict disease.
    Thank you for your knowledge, and good luck with your efforts to turn the tide on this issue.
    David Durham

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  8. David, is there evidence to show whether vitD is having this effect itself, or whether sunshine is protective and vitD is a marker for sunshine?

    I remember that the VITAL study was very disappointing, showing that vitD supplements did not reduce cancer, in spite of studies showing that sunshine reduces cancer.

    Are we sure that it's vitD that's important?

  9. The Vital study describes itself as a " high dose " vit D study but gave 2000iu to the vitD arm. This is not a high dose and for obese individuals might not have been enough to get them into the 30ng/l + desirable range. Given the wide variability for vitD absorption between individuals this is a design fault of the study that makes it pretty worthless. The studies should have a goal for blood level of vit D and then individuals should be dosed to get them to that level. Given many vit D researchers consider that a level of between 50 and 80 ng/l is necessary for cancer prevention and that 2000iu daily is not likely to produce such levels the study is like so many others - not enough vit D given so results not useful.

  10. This is an interesting preprint that outlines historical evidence that quite high levels of vitamin D may be required to treat some diseases.

  11. Dr Grimes can you please advise how much Vitamin D should an adult and also a child take - I listened to your video today which was sent round on a whatsapp group I am part of and wanted to confirm what 4000 units actually meant is this 400 IU and how many milligrams etc?

  12. Can you please inform us what vitamin D we should be taking?

  13. Dr Grimes can you please advise how much Vitamin D should an adult and also a child take - I listened to your video today which was sent round on a whatsapp group I am part of and wanted to confirm what 4000 units actually meant is this 400 IU and how many milligrams etc?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I totally understand your confusion and this is because many doctors in the UK I've been taught that of 400 -800 are effective. Sadly I don't think this is the case and has never been the case but more so now when we are protecting ourselves from the Sun due to all of the bad press has received in the last 20 or so years regarding skin cancer.

      400iu is 10mcg a tiny tiny amount when you consider that one hour of sunshine is about 20,000 IU for a fair skinned person.

      You should be looking at taking doses of 2000 to 4000 a day. I personally am taking much higher doses having read more about the subject, but 2000 to 4000 are within the excepted norms.

      The latest research indicates that vitamin d with vitamin K is a really wonderful combination as they work synergistically and vitamin K helps ensure that calcium is used in the body in the appropriate way.

      I should say I learnt about vitamin D 20 years ago when my daughter became critically ill. In fact I started my own nutrition company purely on the basis of wanting to help people and not experience the problems we had due to lack of understanding and poor supplement quality.

      Dr Peter Chadha founder Bespoke Biotics
      You will find 5000, 10000 and Vitamin d and K combos on the site (called Biodeck)

  14. Very informative David, Vitamin D is the key to keeping healthy. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Thank you for sharing; really interesting.
    I wondered if it were appropriate to ask for your email to make contact. I was one of your patients some 10 years ago. You treated and diagnosed my condition. 10 years on, I seen to be an enigma.
    Would be good to pick your brain.
    Thank you in advance,

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