The coronavirus pandemic has sex data blind spots: Why that's problematic

The CDC’s latest update on COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. has no mention of male and female patients. A CDC spokesperson said the agency does “not have that information to share at this time” and "additional investigation is needed," according to the New York Times

The lack of sex-disaggregated data collection is a global challenge and not specific to the CDC. "We are not aware of any gender analysis of the outbreak by global health institutions or governments in affected countries or in preparedness phases," authors representing the international Gender and COVID-19 Working Group wrote for The Lancet. 

"We can confidently say from the data from many countries that being male is a risk factor,” said Sabra Klein, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NYT. "That, in and of itself should be evidence for why every country should be disaggregating their data."

Understanding how men and women may react differently to the virus is important for many reasons, both immediate and long-term, including vaccine and treatment efficacy and understanding the primary and secondary effects of a health crisis on different communities.

Sex data blind spots have real consequences, as past underrepresention in clinical and scientific studies illustrates. The NYT points to 1998 to 2000, when women represented 22 percent of initial small-scale safety trials for new drug applications submitted to the FDA. The GAO found that eight of the 10 FDA-approved drugs withdrawn from the market between 1997 and 2001 posed greater health risks for women than men. 

Sex-disaggregated data is also needed to inform emergency preparedness plans and policies that do not perpetuate gender and health inequities. At an international level, gender norms have put women at greater health risks. In The Lancet, the Gender and COVID-19 Working Group recalls the Ebola outbreak from 2014 through 2016 in West Africa, noting women were more likely to be infected by the virus given their predominant roles as caregivers within families and front-line healthcare workers. "Women were less likely than men to have power in decision making around the outbreak, and their needs were largely unmet."

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