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Scientists have spent a lot of time and energy this year in figuring out why COVID-19 kills some people but only causes very mild illness in others. After studying 17.4 million patients, the UK's National Health Service or NHS has shed new light on the main risk factors for death by COVID-19

Researchers at the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (associated with the NHS) analysed data from 40% of all COVID-19 patients in England for this study. Of the 17.4 million patient participants who were treated at various hospitals, 10,926 died due to COVID-19.

The study—done to ascertain the main causes and risk factors for deaths due to this new viral infection—is said to be the largest study on COVID-19 performed by any country thus far. As such, the study reliably gives strong evidence on the various risk factors that are associated with fatalities due to the coronavirus infection.

  1. Race and ethnicity in COVID-19
  2. Older age, male gender and preexisting health conditions in COVID-19

The study found that of those residing in the UK, people of Asian and black ethnic origins were at a higher risk of death as a result of COVID-19 as compared to the white population living in the country.

"It is very concerning to see that the higher risks faced by people from BME backgrounds are not attributable to identifiable underlying health conditions," said Professor Liam Smeeth, who is a professor of clinical epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

(Read more: COVID-19 fatality rate in patients with diabetes)

The researchers said that a number of health and socio-economic factors may also have a role in mortality risk—populations susceptible to higher mortality rates may have had a higher prevalence of underlying or pre-existing health conditions like heart diseases, diabetes and obesity

Other underlying conditions that are said to increase the risk of mortality are asthma and other respiratory conditions, liver disease and kidney diseases, as well as neurological and autoimmune diseases.

(Read more: COVID-19 and obesity link)

Earlier studies and medical data have indicated that the prevalence of certain medical problems among the black and minority ethnic (BME) communities put some people at a higher risk of severe COVID-19. The findings of this study suggest people of these communities may also be at marginally increased the risk of mortality. More research needs to be done on this.

The researchers also cautioned against taking the cohort as fully representative of the entire population, as some patients may have been incorrectly thought to be COVID-19 positive. Conversely, some deaths may not have been classified as having occurred due to the infection, particularly when the outbreak was new and testing was not as rampant. (A cohort is a particular set or group of people used for the study.)

The preprint version of the same study, which was published in May 2020, had accounted for 5,707 deaths but the authors have built on their initial data by taking more fatalities into consideration since then.

Black and South Asian people, as well as those of mixed ethnic backgrounds, were 1.62 to 1.88 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts, after considering comorbidities and taking other factors into account. 

The more deprived people from the same communities were even more likely to succumb to the disease by a factor of 1.8 times as compared to those from more privileged backgrounds. However, various social and economic factors were the cause of the high rate of fatality and not pre-existing medical conditions.

In addition to those from particular ethnic and socioeconomically deprived backgrounds, men were also found to be at a higher risk of severe complications of COVID-19, including death.

People who were older and those with severe and uncontrolled diabetes were also found to be at higher risk of dying if they contract COVID-19.

(Read more: Why coronavirus is more dangerous for diabetes patients)

People suffering from severe forms of asthma were also found to be at a significantly higher risk of death if they were to contract the COVID-19 infection. (Read more: What is acute respiratory distress syndrome?)

The study combined data taken from patients who had been hospitalised with the infection that has caused a global pandemic with data from primary care centres. Primary care centres provide the first point of contact with patients in the NHS, who come in for general consultation, pharmacy or other medical problems, before being sent for further examination in a hospital.

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