World Health Organisation ‘misleading the world’ on Covid and alcohol, claims professor of nutrition
During an online seminar last week, German doctor and professor Nicolai Worm claimed that the World Health Organisation was “misleading the world” when it comes to Covid-19 and alcohol.
The event was designed to look at the scientific evidence surrounding various claims circulating in the media during the current pandemic, most notably concerning the relationship between people’s immune response to Covid-19 and their consumption of alcohol.
Called Wine and COVID-19: fake news or facts, it was held on 2 March and led by Nicolai, who is a nutrition consultant, lecturer and professor of nutrition at the German University of Prevention and Health Care Management.
Speaking during the seminar, he drew attention to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, published on its website, under the heading ‘Alcohol: what to do, and what not to do, during the COVID-19 pandemic’.
In particular, Nicolai, who is also chair of The Wine Information Council, highlighted this piece of advice from the organisation regarding Covid-19, which is: “Avoid alcohol altogether so that you do not undermine your own immune system and health and do not risk the health of others.”
Having already drawn attention to several scientific studies that either fail to support such an assertion, or indeed, show that moderate drinking can actually boost immunity, he said that the organisation was disseminating inaccurate information.
He said, “WHO are encouraging governments to enforce measures to limit alcohol consumption, but they are not making a differentiation concerning gender or alcohol amount or nutrition; they are saying that alcohol weakens the immune system, but the scientific data is saying that it might do the opposite, but WHO are not interested in this information – it is advising avoiding alcohol altogether.”
Commenting further on what he described as WHO’s “so-called factsheets”, he said, despairingly, that he “wasn’t surprised” that WHO did not appear “interested in the distribution of evidence-based information”, suggesting that “political-based information seems more important.”
When asked by the drinks business why no-one seemed to be challenging WHO regarding such information, Nicolai said, “I have the same question; one of my main topics of research for the past 40 years has been dietary facts and health, and WHO has been misleading the world on this topic until this day – they come up with dietary guidelines that are not in the least bit based on scientific evidence, and while I assume it is politically-led, I’m not sure what their motivation is.”
So what are these studies, and what do they show?
Firstly, among those cited by Nicolai was a study from February 2016, entitled: Opposing effects of alcohol on the immune system, which showed that “moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced inflammation and improved responses to vaccination.”
It also noted that “light to moderate drinkers” have “a lower risk of all-cause mortality than abstainers”, although ”heavy drinkers are at the highest risk.”
For Worm, such a study is important because it differentiates between “moderate” and “chronic, heavy drinkers”, which is “rarely done”.
Acknowledging that “heavy alcohol consumption” will “disturb the immune function”, mentioning in particular “leaky gut syndrome” he said there “is no doubt that alcohol abuse has a negative effect”.
However, he said that for any scientific study involving alcohol it was crucial that it considered “not only amount of alcohol that you drink but also the drinking pattern and beverage type and the gender and the nutrition status of the people, as well as their genes.”
And for Nicolai, the problem with the results of most studies on health and alcohol is that they employ people with drinking disorders.
“The vast majority of research on alcohol and immune function is done on people who are chronic heavy drinkers,” he said.
Another study cited by Nicolai, called Impact of Alcohol Abuse on the Adaptive Immune System highlighted the “deleterious effects of heavy alcohol exposure”, while recording that “moderate alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects on the adaptive immune system, including improved responses to vaccination and infection.”
In terms of studies specifically on Covid-19, he said that the biggest had been conducted in the UK, with more than 380,000 people taking part.
Called Lifestyle risk factors, inflammatory mechanisms, and COVID-19 hospitalization, the study involved 387,109 adults in UK, which he said showed that people who rarely or never drank actually had a higher risk of hospitalisation from Covid infection – something that makes “no biological sense”, and was a most likely a correlation that was not causally related.
However, what did seem plausible from the same study were the correlations it showed between people who suffered hospitalisation following covid infection who were smokers, physically inactive or obese.
Importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that there is an increased incidence of Covid infection among chronic drinkers compared to people who don’t drink, and equally importantly, it is a myth to suggest that heavy drinking might protect you against Covid infection, stressed Nicolai.
As for the specific issue of alcohol and the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccination, he said that, similarly, there was no proper scientific evidence to suggest that drink would affect it.
“There is hardly anything I can show you,” he said, before mentioning a study in Australia in 2019 referring to pneumococcus that showed that “heavy alcohol consumption can lower the effects of the vaccination,” although he then mentioned “another older review”, which he said “came to the conclusion that light to moderate wine consumption may be beneficial concerning vaccinations, but the data is so poor it’s not worth showing.”
In short, he said that there were “no studies on alcohol and response to the Covid-19 vaccine.”
Nevertheless, he added that there are some indications that “moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages may assist the immune response to the vaccine, potentially through the anti-inflammatory effect of the wine polyphenols” – although the research to support this was “insufficient”.
For Nicolai, not only is the evidence surrounding moderate drinking and the efficacy of immune responses to vaccinations “insufficient”, but it is similarly lacking when it comes to the increased or decreased risk of respiratory infections.
He also warned anyone considering studies relating to wine and health to be “careful translating in vitro results to in vivo studies”.
Finally, he said, “We have no way we can come to any kind of serious conclusion on wine and Covid.”
He added, “Yes there are some studies on the Mediterranean diet and covid and it seems that people who follow a Mediterranean diet have a lesser degree of Covid and better response from the immune system, but this is related to their whole lifestyle, as they are normally more health conscious, and follow other aspects of a healthy lifestyle.
“A diet with a lot of antioxidants and polyphenols and salad and fruit and berries should at least help boost our immune function,” he concluded.
But the question remains, why is WHO telling people to avoid alcohol altogether during the pandemic when there is no scientific evidence to suggest moderate drinking is associated with increased risk of respiratory infections?
Indeed, moderate drinking has, in some studies, been linked to a decreased risk.
WHO has been contacted several times this week in reference to the comments from Dr Nicolai Worm, but db has yet to receive a reply.