This dangerous myth has been doing the rounds of social media and some news outlets since March. But there is no evidence that African heritage offers any protection against coronavirus.

In the UK, many of the people who have sadly died of COVID-19 are of African or Caribbean descent. Indeed, research is underway to find out why people from black and minority ethnic groups in the UK seem more likely to become victims of the disease. Many African American people in the US have died of COVID-19, with death rates higher than those for the white population. At the time of writing, more than 16,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Africa.

The myth could be particularly dangerous if people of African descent believe themselves to be at lower risk of infection or serious illness when they are at equal or raised risk.

 

Where did the story come from?

The myth appears to have started after a young Cameroonian student in China contracted the virus. Some African news outlets said doctors were surprised that he had survived and put it down to his genes. As he was young, there’s nothing surprising about it. His ethnic background is unlikely to have anything to do with his survival.

 

What is the basis for the claim?

The news reports are not credible for a number of reasons. They do not name the Chinese doctors who were supposedly surprised by the survival of the young student. They do not explain the claims that his survival was down to his “blood genetic composition”. They do not give the qualifications or affiliation of an “African doctor” who they quote as saying that melanin, the pigment which gives skin its colour, provides protection, and that “This proves yet again that the black man is indestructible.”

In addition to the flimsy facts, the reports are not based on any scientific understanding of how genetic variation might affect susceptibility to COVID-19.

There are many genetic variations even between individuals of the same ethnic group. Along with behavioural and health system factors these may influence survival in unknown ways. Looking for simple explanations to predict survival for people with this new virus is unlikely to be helpful.

 

What do trusted sources say?

The myth has been debunked by organisations including the World Economic Forum and Reuters news agency. The World Economic Forum says: “There is no proof that melanin protects black people from the coronavirus. There is also no scientific evidence that African blood composition prevents Africans from contracting the coronavirus.”

Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser

 

Citation

  1. Afriupdate website. Chinese doctors reveal why African skin resists coronavirus. https://www.afriupdate.com/africa/chinese-doctors-reveals-why-african-skin-resists-coronavirus/ (Accessed 22 April 2020)

Reading list

  1. World Economic Forum. 9 popular myths doing the rounds in Africa about the coronavirus – debunked. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/debunking-9-popular-myths-doing-the-rounds-in-africa-about-the-coronavirus/ (Accessed 22 April 2020)
  2. Covid-19: Disproportionate impact on ethnic minority healthcare workers will be explored by government. (news story). BMJ 2020;369:m1562 https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m1562 (Accessed 22 April 2020)