Public urged to take part in ‘vital’ Covid-19 population study

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has urged people to ensure they are “doing your bit” to support the country, by taking part in a large-scale coronavirus testing study.

The Government wants to track Covid-19 in the population to try to understand the current rate of infection and how many people have developed antibodies to the virus.

Mr Hancock said 25,000 people will take part in the first phase of the study, with plans to expand it to up to 300,000 over the next 12 months.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing on Thursday, he said: “Letters are arriving on doorsteps from today, please, if you’re asked, take part in this vital research for your country.

“The early signs from today are that there is huge enthusiasm from those who’ve received letters taking part in this survey.

“If you get a letter please respond to it as soon as you can because you will be doing your bit.”

For the study, initial findings from which are expected in early May, all participants will provide a nose and throat swab to test whether or not they currently have the virus.

Adults in some 1,000 of the households will provide a blood sample to find out what proportion of the population has developed antibodies to Covid-19.

Mr Hancock said the study will be drawing on the household survey experience of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the scientific expertise of Oxford University.

Participants will form a representative sample of the UK population by age and geography.

Those selected will provide samples taken from self-administered nose and throat swabs and answer a few short questions during a home visit by a trained healthcare professional.

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 a year.

Mr Hancock said the study would provide “critical” information to support the battle against the virus and represented “one of the biggest virus infection and antibodies studies that this country has ever seen”.

He added: “We will use these tests to help us strengthen our scientific understanding and inform us on the big choices that we have to make about social distancing measures and how we start returning to a more normal life.”

Antibody testing is considered crucial in providing an exit pathway from the current lockdown, and also providing data to those developing a vaccine.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has said there is currently not a test available that Public Health England (PHE) has enough confidence in.

Scientists at Oxford University are in the process of validating an antibody test, also known as an Elisa test, which will be used in this study.

Professor Derrick Crook, who is among those co-ordinating the programme of work at Oxford, said they are on track to have a “fully validated and an accreditation compliant test” in place by May 4.

New confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK
(PA Graphics)

This laboratory test will be used in the study by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and ONS, but Prof Crook said there is capacity to process well over 20,000 tests a day should there be such a demand for testing.

Participants in the antibody test will be asked to give further samples monthly for the next 12 months.

The Government said nose and throat swabs will be taken from all participating households, whether their members are reporting symptoms or not.

Blood for antibody tests will not be taken in any households where someone has symptoms of Covid-19 or is currently self-isolating or shielding.

The study will also involve data science company IQVIA UK and the National Biosample Centre in Milton Keynes.

DHSC said healthcare workers will use recommended precautions to protect themselves and everyone in the household from getting the virus, and tests will be undertaken by the IQVIA nurse in the participant’s own home.

Although swab test results will be given to participants via their GP, a letter seen by the PA news agency says that those participating in the antibody test
will not receive their results.

The de-identified blood samples will be sent to Oxford University to be tested for antibodies, while infection testing swabs are to be sent to UK Biocentre.

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