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The idea that air pollution could make coronavirus more deadly is “entirely plausible”, the government’s deputy chief scientific adviser has said.
Jonathan Van Tam said there was “very solid data” that showed poor air quality contributes to higher death rates generally, particularly from respiratory diseases like Covid-19.
Responding to a question from HuffPost UK, Van Tam told the daily Downing Street briefing: “I think we already have very solid data that air pollution contributes to a whole range of mortality, particularly from respiratory illnesses and respiratory diseases and cardiovascular disease.
“I have heard it said about air pollution and Covid-19. I have not personally studied those data and looked at that question in detail but what you say is entirely plausible in my view.”
The government’s coronavirus testing chief, John Newton, suggested that government scientists would want to analyse the link between the virus and air quality, adding: “We know that air pollution, because it’s so pervasive and affects so many people, has a huge burden.”
One preliminary study by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston has already linked air pollution to significantly higher death rates of people with coronavirus.
It suggested that people in polluted areas were more likely to die from Covid-19 than those living in places with cleaner air.
Scientists in Italy have also highlighted the higher death rates in the north of the country, where air pollution is worse than in the south.
None of the studies so far have been endorsed by independent scientists through the peer-review process so cannot yet be relied upon as solid evidence of a link.
At the same time, lockdowns around the world have temporarily contributed to better air quality and scientists are probing whether this could help save lives.
In 2003 a study of the outbreak of SARS in China - a similar disease to Covid-19 - showed patients were more than twice as likely to die from the disease if they came from areas of high pollution.