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Approved Research

Impact of air quality and the built environment on vitamin D status - investigating modifiable risk factors for COVID-19.

Principal Investigator: Dr Moonisah Usman
Approved Research ID: 68906
Approval date: April 6th 2021

Lay summary

The coronavirus pandemic presents a puzzling, disparate clinical course of disease. While some infected individuals are asymptomatic or have mild respiratory symptoms, others experience more severe complications associated with an inflammatory 'storm'. To date, coronavirus has caused over 59,000 deaths in the UK. Given the current 'third wave' and unknown future implications, it is important to identify what makes some individuals more vulnerable to respiratory viruses than others. Interestingly, a number of studies draw correlations between vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of infections including COVID-19, and deaths. With a fifth of the UK's population deficient in vitamin D, there is a need to explore contributory factors, control the pandemic and prevent future outbreaks.

Vitamin D is an anti-inflammatory hormone which we mostly receive from exposure to sunlight. It is thought that air pollution interferes with sunlight reaching the earth. Secondly, built-up areas with high population and building density may reduce the presence of outdoor spaces that receive enough sunshine. However, we do not know yet whether these factors have an effect on how well we absorb vitamin D. Therefore, this 12-month research project aims to investigate the impact of air quality and the built environment on vitamin D status and risk of COVID-19 infection and death in England, by analysing factors associated with COVID-19 infection and severity, in relation to urban form, air quality and vitamin D status across UK Biobank participants.

This will lead to the identification of potential neighbourhood 'hot-spots', where residents may be at possible increased risk of vitamin D deficiency and will inform a subsequent study for a more direct and practical assessment of air pollution, built environment and vitamin D status. This multidisciplinary research will lead to policy rethinking around the neighbourhood needs of appropriate outdoor spaces to maximise safe exposure to UV light, and suggest built environment modifications. This research will also inform localised public health interventions to enable more efficient control of future viral disease outbreaks, by facilitating the identification of vulnerable cohorts where monitoring vitamin D status and administering the supplementation should be a priority. Finally, it will call for more input and engagement with environmental reform to reduce air toxicity and improve overall health and wellbeing.