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Did the Indian government provide vitamin D to control COVID-19?

This article was published on
July 9, 2021

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The Indian government did not provide residents with vitamin D to control the epidemic.

The Indian government did not provide residents with vitamin D to control the epidemic.

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What our experts say

Despite vastly improved rates of COVID-19, India did not distribute vitamin D among its residents in order to stop the virus from spreading.

Though some vitamin D studies have suggested some positive results for preventing and treating COVID-19 (especially in people with vitamin D deficiencies), results are still mixed. At this time, there is not enough evidence to support the link between taking vitamin D supplements and preventing or treating the virus.

Since there are several risk factors for COVID-19 and physical characteristics that make people more susceptible to severe infections, it can be hard to determine if a nutrient like vitamin D can have an impact on the virus. Several randomized clinical trials are underway to determine if vitamin D may be protective or helpful in regard to COVID-19. These types of trials study the effects of a specific dosage of vitamin D in a very diverse population, and compare those effects to people who did not receive the supplement.

Studies like the U.K.’s CORONAVIT trial and France's CoVitTrial are researching some of these questions about vitamin D and will hopefully publish their findings by the end of 2021.

Whether India has controlled COVID-19—without the widespread use of vitamin D by the government—is up for debate. Many Indian government officials would argue that the country's 40,000+ new COVID-19 cases per day might mean the pandemic is under control in the country. However, health experts fear that the country's reported daily cases and mortality rates are much lower than the actual numbers that have been reported.

India's government reported that more than 30 million people have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 400,000 people have died as a result of the virus. In comparison, on May 25, 2021, The New York Times estimated that more than 1.6 million people had died and more than 539 million people had been infected in the country.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has estimated that excess daily deaths from the virus were 2.8 times higher than what the nation had reported. They noted that only 7% of infections were actually detected and recorded there. IHME's models suggested that 46% of people in India had been infected with COVID-19, a much larger number than the 30 million people the government reported out of a nation with a population of over 1.3 billion people.

Some confusion mounted earlier in the pandemic when former Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared that India was in the "end game" of the pandemic on March 7, 2021, despite daily cases increasing more than five times that daily rate by the end of the month. The virus continued to surge from April to June, but has now reached much less dangerous levels.

As the nation prepares for a potential third wave of the pandemic, more personal but inaccurate claims about what people thought helped them prevent or fight off a COVID-19 infection may continue to appear. Vaccines have certainly helped stem new outbreaks, but hundreds of millions more are still needed to achieve herd immunity or offer substantial protection to India's population.

Context and background

There have been dozens of studies researching the impacts of vitamin D on COVID-19 infections. This is likely due to a 2017 study which found that vitamin D may be helpful in fighting off respiratory infections. The analyses involved 25 randomized controlled trials with 11,000 people who received vitamin D supplements. The largest impact occurred in people who began the study with serious vitamin D deficiencies.

That study was recently updated to include 46 trials and over 75,000 participants but showed that the nutrient's impact on acute respiratory infections may be small. This meta-analysis spanned 23 countries over five continents, but did note publication bias might have impacted the findings.

Many people have taken this study's findings to suggest that vitamin D can prevent any respiratory infections, which is not what the study actually notes. Additionally, COVID-19 is unlike other respiratory infections. It is a specific type of virus with unique characteristics that very few humans have developed any immune protection against. For that reason, it is difficult to apply the 2017's study's findings to such a specific and novel virus.

Despite this, many false claims on social media have circulated around the world reporting that vitamin D can prevent COVID-19. Though there is not enough evidence to support this claim, unless it is taken in high dosages, most studies have not found the nutrient to be dangerous when taken in small quantities over a period of time but do not suggest supplementing daily diets with vitamin D.

Resources

  1. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data (The BMJ)
  2. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis of aggregate data from randomised controlled trials (The Lancet)
  3. Vitamin D supplementation and clinical outcomes in COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis (Journal of Endocrinological Investigation)
  4. Vitamin D and COVID-19 susceptibility and severity in the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative: A Mendelian randomization study (PLOS Medicine)
  5. COVID-19 Results Briefing: India (IHME)
  6. Lower levels of vitamin D are associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection and mortality in the Indian population: An observational study (International Immunopharmacology)
  7. Can Vitamin D Help Protect against COVID? (Scientific American)
  8. The Night the Oxygen Ran Out (The New York Times)
  9. India's COVID death rate hit record in June after calls for better data (Reuters)
  10. Tracking Coronavirus in India: Latest Map and Case Count (The New York Times)
  11. Indian Prime Minister fires health minister and 11 others as Covid crisis lingers (CNN)
  12. Coronavirus news - live: India approves Covid package to boost healthcare system ahead of third wave (The Independent)
  13. Does vitamin D combat Covid? (The Guardian)
  14. Does vitamin D provide immunity against coronavirus infection? (India Today)
  15. What went so wrong with covid in India? Everything. (MIT Technology Review)
  16. What to Know About India’s Coronavirus Crisis (The New York Times)
  17. India Covid: What are the claims around the 'free vaccine' policy? (BBC News)
  18. How India can prevent third wave of Covid-19 pandemic (India Today)
  19. Second Covid-19 wave lingering, or early signs of 3rd? (Hindustan Times)
  20. Covid: Free Vitamin D pills for 2.5 million vulnerable in England (BBC News)

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