Deborah Lawlor, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bristol and the NIHR Bristol BRC, is co-leading a new research programme to find out which factors increase people’s risk of COVID-19 infection. This is one of six flagship research programmes, funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which aim to improve care for people with heart and circulatory disease suffering from COVID-19.

Professor Lawlor is leading the project alongside Professor Aroon Hingorani, Director of the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science and the UCL BHF Research Accelerator, and Professor Cathie Sudlow, Head of Centre for Medical Informatics and Chair of Neurology and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, and Director of the BHF Data Science Centre.

Their research team is linking data from large cohort studies to uncover which cardiovascular diseases, as well as genetic, demographic or lifestyle factors, are associated with increased risk of COVID-19 infection and its severity. It will also look at mechanisms linking COVID-19 to adverse cardiovascular health. This could pave the way for improved treatments or better ways of identifying those at risk.

Professor Lawlor explained:

“Identifying the factors which may explain why some people are at increased risk of COVID-19 infection is critical to our understanding of the disease and reducing mortality.

“We know that certain underlying health conditions, such as being overweight or obesity, heart disease and diabetes, are associated with a higher risk of people getting COVID-19, or becoming very seriously ill or even dying from it when they get it. What we don’t yet know is why this is the case and what we can do to protect people from COVID-19. There is also evidence that COVID-19 increases the risk of subsequent heart disease and we need to understand more about these long-term effects.

“Our aim is to link genetic, health and lifestyle data from the UK’s biobanks and population cohorts, including Bristol’s Children of the 90s study, with primary care and hospital data, including data on who has had COVID-19, and apply a cause-and-effect analytical technique known as Mendelian randomisation.

“Using this technique will allow us to separate and identify the causal role that genetics, lifestyle factors such as alcohol and smoking, a range of cardiovascular conditions, obesity and diabetes has on increased risk of COVID-19, and ultimately, help us determine who is most at risk in terms of disease severity and mortality.”

Find out more about all six programmes supported by the BHF and NIHR