National News: Government begins large scale virus infection and antibody test study

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed a Covid-19 study has been launched. Picture: Stefan Rous

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed a Covid-19 study has been launched. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire - Credit: Archant

A major long-term study that will track the spread of Covid-19 in the general population - including antibody testing - has been launched today.

The Government has confirmed the study will help scientists to understand levels of immunity and it expects that up to 300,000 people will take part over 12 months.

Twenty thousand households in England are being contacted to take part in the first wave.

Participants in the study will form a representative sample of the entire UK population by age and geography. The results will help scientists and the government in the ongoing response to the coronavirus outbreak, with initial findings expected to be available in early May.

Led by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the study draws on the world-leading scientific expertise of the University of Oxford, backed by the proven testing capabilities of data science company IQVIA UK and the National Biosample Centre in Milton Keynes.

The flagship study forms part of Pillar 4 of the Government’s Covid-19 testing strategy, to conduct UK-wide surveillance testing to learn more about the spread of the disease and help inform the development of new tests and treatments. It will add to the population data already being collected through the national surveillance programme operated by Public Health England, which has been enhanced since the end of February.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Understanding more about the rate of Covid-19 infection in the general population, and the longer-term prevalence of antibodies, is a vital part of our ongoing response to this virus.

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“This survey will help to track the current extent of transmission and infection in the UK, while also answering crucial questions about immunity as we continue to build up our understanding of this new virus.

“Together, these results will help us better understand the spread of the virus to date, predict the future trajectory and inform future action we take, including crucially the development of ground-breaking new tests and treatments.”

Participants will provide samples taken from self-administered nose and throat swabs and answer a few short questions during a home visit by a trained health worker. The swab tests will show whether or not participants currently have the virus. They will be asked to take further tests every week for the first five weeks, then every month for 12 months.

Adults from around 1,000 households will also provide a blood sample taken by a trained nurse, phlebotomist or healthcare assistant. These tests will help determine what proportion of the population has developed antibodies to Covid-19. Participants will be asked to give further samples monthly for the next 12 months.

Professor Sarah Walker of University of Oxford Nuffield Department of Medicine said: “This is one of the largest and most important studies underway into the Covid-19 virus and will transform our understanding of the infection. The University of Oxford is delighted to be the study sponsor.”