Pressure rises for Vitamin supplements to protect against the virus

By Jerome Burne

For almost a year now the government and the NHS have been studiously ignoring the possibility that a highly plausible way of effectively combating the virus would be to ensure that everyone, especially those most exposed to it, had adequate levels of the nutrients vital for a well-functioning immune system, such as Vitamin D, Vitamin C, zinc and selenium. Now suddenly three things that might just make a difference, have all happened at once.

  • The government has suddenly announced that it is going to distribute several million doses of the “sunshine” Vitamin D to groups such as the elderly and those in the BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic) community
  • A major paper setting out the case for using Vitamin C in high doses on seriously affected patients has been published 
  • A GP who is a leading expert on Vitamin D, has discovered just how badly Vitamin D deficiency has been affecting the BAME community and why high dose supplementing is vital.

Acknowledging that the Vitamin plays a part in supporting the immune system and cuts the risk infection is to be welcomed. The NHS has been denying that Vitamins support the immune system for nearly a year, despite the large research evidence that has developed during the past forty years.. The next step will be to recognise that Vitamins aren’t magic bullets, they are team players. If treating a serious deficiency with Vitamin D makes sense, why not Vitamin C?

Vitamin D deficiency key to virus vulnerability of BAME community

The research on Vitamin D and the BAME community was done by retired Blackburn physician Dr David Grimes, who first started investigating the link between heart disease and sun exposure over twenty years ago.

His latest work cuts through the debate about whether the greater risk of those with darker skins is due to the need for longer sun exposure or whether it is a more complicated mix of the risk factors caused by poorer socio-economic conditions.

Grimes realised that obituaries of doctors, routinely published in medical journals and local papers, almost always came with a picture. This meant he could identify those obituaries that were BAME (Black African and Asian minority Ethnicgroups), and because all were doctors, they all shared the same socio-economic background.

He found that the BAME doctors declared dead from COVID-19 had died, when they were an average, of 30 years younger than white doctors – 62 vs 91. ‘I can think of no explanation,’ writes Grimes ‘other than skin colour.’

One white doctor dies for every 23 BAME

Even more shocking, they were dying in far greater numbers. Of the 24 who had died from Covid-19 between March 25 and May 3, just one was white, the rest were BAME. Then on April 29 a letter was sent to all members of the BAME medical association about the severe consequences of Vitamin D deficiency and advising a supplement of 3,000 IUs a day. After May 3rd no working BAME doctor died. Deaths abruptly came to an end.

“What distresses me more than anything,’ Grimes told me, ‘is the almost total absence of clinical research during this pandemic.  My small contribution to research into the dreadful death toll of BAME doctors could have been undertaken by official medical bodies such as the NHS, PHE, RCP, BMA, but nothing was done.

‘There has been a great deal of research on the virus, but serious neglect of its effect on the human host, other than dying “having tested positive for Covid-19 during the past 28 days”. The attitude of NICE has been destructive.’

So, if serious Vitamin D deficiency has been killing off BAME doctors, it’s reasonable to assume that the same is probably happening in other groups where serious deficiencies are common, such as the elderly – those over 65.

Three million elderly seriously Vitamin D deficient

What we do know is just how many of them have very low levels of the Vitamin. As I pointed out in my previous post, buried in the government’s health statistics is data which indicate that nearly 3 million of them are dangerously deficient.

Twenty four per cent of them have a Vitamin D level below 25nmol/l – (UK measurement, which is 10ng/mL in America) And since 18% of the population is over 65, that means there are over 2,850,000 older people who have less than the absolute minimum for bones, let alone sufficient to help fight an infection.

But doesn’t the arrival of the vaccine, along with the proposed roll out of millions of doses of Vitamin D, make all this academic?  Not at all. There are still many unknown about the vaccine and even if the supplements are delivered, the dose is likely to be too low.  Also, the sudden way the decision was taken is not reassuring that it has been done with much understanding of Vitamins or a clear strategy.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends just 400 IUs a day. Many of the studies referred to in my previous post on Vitamin D consistently found that those with far higher levels in their system had a reduced risk of infection.  And Vitamin D deficiency doesn’t just make you more vulnerable to infection. Various studies have linked low levels with a raised risk of chronic disorders such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. One recent study found that supplementation with 2,000 IUs plus omega 3 reduced the chances of cancer spreading. 

Government U-turns on Vitamin D supplementing but why?

And why has the government had such a very sudden change of heart? In September official advisory bodies were repeating the familiar line that Vitamin D was only really needed for strong bones. ‘Health professionals should not routinely test people’s Vitamin D status’ declared NICE. A review of Vitamin D by SACN, concluded that: ‘evidence currently does not support Vitamin D supplementation,’ to prevent respiratory disorders. 

So, is the plan to distribute millions of doses a sign of a conversion to the idea that Vitamin D is vital for the immune system? Certainly, that’s what a GP spokesperson told the BBC when the plan was announced, saying: ‘It is intended to halt the influx of coronavirus patients into intensive care units this winter.’ Has fresh evidence been discovered? Did SACN miss something? Despite several requests, the NHS press office has been unable to provide an explanation.

What is clear is that the official approach treats Vitamin D as if it is a pharmaceutical magic bullet that will knock out the virus on its own, but Vitamins and minerals don’t work like that. For an effective immune response, you need adequate levels all the minerals and vitamins involved not just one. They are team players and an equally important player for the immune response is Vitamin C.

This comes out very clearly in the just-published major review of the benefits of C, first in fighting off and then treating serious COVID-infections. Written by an international team of Vitamin C experts and referencing over 100 studies, it details such findings as treating a cold, which could be the start of a COVID-19 infection. ‘Eight 1g Vitamin C tablets a day can stop it within 24 hours.’

Much higher doses, according to an RCT, can cut the death rate of seriously infected patients on ventilators by 68%.’ The recent widely publicised trial of a steroid (dexamethasone) for these patients found a 28% drop in the death rate.

Infected humans need extra Vitamin C but can’t make it

Dr Anitra Carr, the co-author on the big Vitamin C review and associate professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, explains why we need high doses.’ When people get severe respiratory infections their requirement and utilization of Vitamin C goes up significantly, which is why they usually need intravenous infusions.’

She points out that animals which make Vitamin C increase their production significantly when under viral attack so as to always maintain adequate blood levels. ‘Only animals that don’t make Vitamin C – primates, guinea pigs and bats – are susceptible to COVID-19.’

The review shows that the majority of patients coming into ICUs already have vastly depleted Vitamin C levels, often low enough to diagnose scurvy. The way to treat them is with high dose supplementation. 

The level of detail in the review and the authority of the authors is impressive. The institutions they are associated with include Reconstructive Surgery & Regenerative Medicine Research Group, Swansea University Medical School, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School and Department of Pharmacology, University of Oxford.

This raises questions about the accuracy and independence of the allegations, common over the last year, that claims vitamins can help fight the virus are ignorant, exaggerations or simply ‘fake news’. 

Scare tactics used against Vitamin C

Current advice from the NHS does nothing to dispel such allegations. For instance, under the heading – ‘Is too much Vitamin C harmful’ – the NHS site Medical Xpress advises that 60 to 90mg a day is enough and that the upper limit is 2000mg. Any more, it warns, could cause nasty side effects such as nausea vomiting, abdominal cramps and insomnia.

Contrast this with the conclusion of the review.  ‘Vitamin C’s potential benefits – low cost and safety profile and multiple disease-modifying actions, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating effects, make it an attractive therapeutic candidate in reducing viral load with oral supplementation in the range of 6-8 g/day to prevent the conversion to the critical phase of COVID-19.’

The lead author on the paper is nutritionist Patrick Holford, who has often been attacked for his belief in the widespread benefits of correcting Vitamin deficiencies. He is using the review as the basis for a campaign to raise awareness and to start a quick and cheap testing campaign for deficiency in groups at risk. Details below. 

The benefit the BAME community could get from Vitamin D supplementation is also true for Vitamin C. And just as Vitamin D deficiency is associated with a range of other disorders, so is low levels of Vitamin C. Deficiency is linked with diabetes, the damaged lung disorder of COPD and chronic hypertension. It may also be the reason risk of death rises with age. 

‘Recent research suggests that providing you have sufficient Vitamin C,’ says Holford, ‘and no underlying chronic disorders, the connection disappears. Your risk of dying doesn’t rise simply because you have got older.’

Deficiencies of both C and D weaken immune defences

So the protective effect of Vitamin C against the virus shouldn’t come as a surprise once you know how beneficial its effects are. They include helping the development of immune cells, killing viruses and producing another antivirus compound -interferon. Animal work has found it upregulates the genes involved in antioxidant production and downregulates genes controlling inflammation, one of the most damaging effects of viral infection.

Research has also recently thrown up a genetic link between Vitamin C deficiency and the greater vulnerability of the BAME community. Yet another reason to reverse deficiency of both nutrients.

There are a couple of reasons why men, and specifically African men, are more likely to be Vitamin C deficient and suffer its knock-on effects. To begin with, they generally have a lower concentration of Vitamin C in their blood than women, even if they are eating a diet that is richer in Vitamin C.

On top of this, in stressful situations – such as a viral epidemic – the effect of certain genes, known as transporter genes, that control how Vitamin C gets into cells, are damped down. This again is a change found more often in African men, which means they are less able to benefit from Vitamin C’s viral fighting effects. 

It is true, however, that despite all the data suggesting that supplementing those with deficiencies in vulnerable populations could greatly improve their ability to fight off the virus, a gold-standard RCT has never been run to test it. But that is surely the responsibility of the NHS that should be urgently tackled, rather an excuse to keep Vitamins C and D in the cupboard, while rates of infection within vulnerable populations continue to rise.

Meanwhile, the aim of Holford’s ‘Vitamin C for Covidcampaign is to raise funds to counter the negative publicity and start testing for deficiency in those at risk. The equipment to do this is the most basic possible – a urine dipstick costing 20p and giving a result within half an hour.

Already dipstick testing is being done at the Chelsea & Westminster hospital ICU where the head of research Dr Marcela Vizcaychipi, had been giving 2g of Vitamin C since the start of the pandemic.

The results of the test showed the patients were still too low and their dose has been upped to 6g. If only the NHS could start doing something as quick, cheap and effective.

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne is the editor of HealthInsightUK. He is an award-winning journalist who has been specialising in medicine and health for the last 10 years and now works mainly for the Daily Mail. His most recent book “The Hybrid Diet” was written with nutritionist Patrick Holford, published 2018. Award: 2015: Finalist for 'Blogger of the Year' Medical Journalists' Association.


  • The ONLY reason that UK Gov agreed to ‘prescribe’ Vitamin d pills to so called ‘seriously clinically vulnerable’people (how serious is serious?) is they were shamed into following the Scottish Government initiative. Otherwise they would not have even considered it … simples!

    • Editorial

      Interesting. Is this s very plausible deduction or do you have good connections? Certainly I have still not had an explanation from the NHS press office. The difficulty, one officer explained, was that they had not been asked that question before!!!

  • The thought of all the avoidable deaths and the misery from lockdown because this knowledge isn’t being used is unbearable. From what I have seen of the vaccine trials, levels of nutrients important for immune function in test subjects haven’t been assessed (could be wrong here – would love to see reliable info on this) which makes the trials useless in my view. I have encouraged all my family and friends to supplement. I supported our local Green Party Councillor (in Tameside) to ask a question at the last council meeting as to whether the council would consider supplementing vulnerable groups with vit D, in the hope of a further discussion to add vit C, selenium, zinc and magnesium (needed to convert vit D to it’s active form and also widely deficient) only for him to be put down with a condescending ‘there is no evidence’ despite having supplied lots of it! I followed the link to Dr Grimes blog and discovered a doctor in Tameside has done some research on vit D and covid 19, couldn’t see a name, would love to get in touch.

    • Editorial

      Great you are supporting this. Guy you want in Thamesmead is Professor Edward Jude who is a diabetes specialist.
      This is the information about his research posted on the hospital website on the
      10 July 2020

      Tameside General Hospital is currently collecting data on vitamin D levels for COVID-19 patients, to see if there is a connection between reduced levels of vitamin D and patient outcomes.

      The data being collected is already available from your routine care and you will not have to provide any additional data or have any extra tests. All results and publications will be anonymised, so no one will be able to identify you from the data collected.

      For more information, please contact

      Professor Edward Jude, Chief Investigator-

      Email or telephone 0161 922 6445 /5189

      Dr Stephanie Ling, Co-investigator –

      Email or telephone 0161 922 6000

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