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Research and innovation
News article28 May 2020Directorate-General for Research and Innovation

The impact of sex and gender in the current COVID-19 pandemic

The Commission’s Horizon 2020 Expert Group to update and expand "Gendered Innovations/Innovation through Gender", has developed a case study on “The impact of sex and gender in the current COVID-19 pandemic” under the leadership of Professor Sabine Oertelt-Prigione. Building on the latest scientific knowledge, including from Horizon 2020 projects (e.g. i-CONSENT, ACT, VRespect.Me and GENDERMACRO) it addresses the following key issues: sex differences in immune responses,

  • the sex differences in immune responses
  • dosing and sex-specific side effects of vaccines and therapeutics,
  • gender-specific risk factors (for e.g. healthcare workers and caregivers),
  • gender-sensitive prevention campaigns,
  • gender-specific socioeconomic burden of public safety measures.

This case study highlights in particular the following:

  • Infectious diseases can affect anyone, but some people are affected more seriously than others. COVID-19 is no exception. Age is clearly a factor in how serious the consequences of COVID-19 can be, but it is not the only factor.
  • Sex differences appear to play a role, with more men than women dying of acute infection in the short term. However, social factors contribute to women being more likely to contract the disease. Women may also be impacted more than men in the longer term. The whole range of sex/gender factors needs to be taken into account in COVID-19 research and innovation if novel solutions are to be developed successfully.
  • Biological differences between men and women can influence the body's immune response. Women appear to respond more vigorously to viral infections and to produce more antibodies in response to infection or vaccination. The reasons may be hormonal, genetic or related to differences in intestinal bacteria. The body's response may also vary in people undergoing hormonal therapy.
  • Women appear to experience more medication side-effects than men. COVID-19 drug and vaccine trials must therefore include sex-specific analyses.
  • Employment differences are another factor, as is the division of labour and care duties in families and communities. Women are much more frequently employed in service professions, including healthcare. People whose work depends on close contact with others, such as care professionals in hospitals, care homes and the community, come into direct contact with the virus much more frequently than others. The personal protective equipment design must also take into account anatomical differences between men and women.
  • Physical distancing is an important measure to control the person-to-person transmission of viruses and bacteria, and it affects what happens in the workplace. Across the world, women are more likely than men to be non-salaried employees or self-employed, and assume heavier unpaid care and educational workloads at home. Lockdowns therefore impact men and women differently. A further significant social factor is the potential increase in domestic violence when workplace changes mean that perpetrators and victims are confined to their homes.
  • Gendered behaviour differences, for instance in patterns of smoking or hand-washing, also need to be taken into account in public health campaigns, preventive digital platforms, predictive AI models and data collection wearables.
  • Data on COVID-19 infection rates, symptoms, and mortality must be disaggregated by sex and gender in order to lead to truly effective innovative solutions, and the gender dimensions of the outbreak in terms of unemployment, care duties and associated social inequity, as well as domestic and gender-based violence, need to be considered for long-term management of the disease response and for economic re-entry strategies.
  • Moreover, analysing how all of the potentially relevant social factors interact with sex and gender – or intersectionality – is essential to understanding the full picture and therefore to developing effective solutions.

Publication

The impact of sex and gender in the COVID-19 pandemic
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Publication date
28 May 2020
Author
Directorate-General for Research and Innovation