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Current smoking and COVID-19 risk: results from a population symptom app in over 2.4 million people
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  • Published on:
    Current smoking as a risk for COVID-19
    • Nicholas S Hopkinson, Reader in Respiratory medicine Imperial College, London
    • Other Contributors:
      • Niccolò Rossi, Research Fellow
      • Anthony Laverty, Lecturer
      • Jennifer K Quint, Professor of Respiratory Epidemiology
      • Claire J Steves, Senior Clinical Lecturer
      • Mario Falchi, Reader in Computational Medicine

    We thank the authors for their letter in response to our paper(1). We disagree however that the data among the tested subgroup are more informative than our other findings. This is because the small subgroup (1.1% of app users - 0.7% negative, 0.3% positive, 0.1% result unknown) who reported that they had undergone testing for COVID-19 at this relatively early stage in the pandemic (the month from 24th March 2020) were heavily selected. Testing policies focused on healthcare workers and others interacting with healthcare - in particular, patients tested who may have been attending healthcare settings for other, non-COVID-19 related, conditions. As numerous health conditions are smoking-related this would tend to increase the exposure of smokers without COVID-19 to testing. For these reasons, as discussed in the paper, the finding that smoking rates were lower in those testing positive is likely to be due to sampling bias. Rather than being “more relevant”, extrapolation from this subgroup to population risk is entirely inappropriate.
    The letter does appear to misunderstand the groups presented – the “standard user” group were not asymptomatic during the study. Rather, as set out in the first paragraph of the results, they were individuals who at the point of registration with the Zoe COVID Symptom Study App did not think that they already had COVID-19. Among this group of “standard users” current smokers were more likely to report the onset of new symptoms suggesting...

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    Conflict of Interest:
    None declared.
  • Published on:
    Symptom app data are consistent with smokers having increased risk of COVID-19 symptoms, but a decreased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection
    • Peter D Sasieni, Biostatistician King's College London
    • Other Contributors:
      • Peter Hajek, Clinical psychologist

    The paper by Hopkinson et al (1) provides unique and important data on smoking prevalence and COVID-19 symptoms, but their conclusion does not reflect the data well. The authors conclude “these data are consistent with people who smoke being at an increased risk of developing symptomatic COVID-19”. The study includes over 150,000 people with self-reported COVID-19 symptoms and over two million without such symptoms. It also includes data on over 25,000 people who were tested for SARS-CoV-2 and their test results. Based on our analysis of these more relevant data, we interpret the study differently. Our conclusion would be “these data are consistent with smokers having an increased risk of symptoms such as cough and breathlessness, but a decreased risk of having SARS-CoV-2 infection”.
    The difficulty in interpreting these results is that both symptoms and testing are likely colliders in a causal model of smoking and COVID-19. The data reported on SARS-CoV-2 test results make it possible to compare smoking prevalence by age-group and sex in three groups: those who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (n=7,123); those who tested negative (n=16,765); and untested asymptomatic users (n=2,221,088, called “standard users” by the authors). Overall smoking prevalence was less in those tested (8.9%) than in all users of the app (11.0%). This might be thought of as a surprising finding – smoking-related symptoms should lead to testing – but can probably be explained by most asymptomat...

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    Conflict of Interest:
    None declared.