An estimated 3.4 million people in England, or around 6 per cent of the population, have contracted coronavirus so far, a new study involving antibody home tests concluded on Thursday.
The study, following what is described as the world’s largest home antibody testing programme involving a finger-prick test, is published by Imperial College London and involved over 100,000 volunteers.
It also found many regional differences in infection rates, with the level higher in London where 13 per cent of people showed antibodies.
People from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, care workers, and people living in larger households were also among the most likely to have been infected, a factor already part of a wider Public Health England (PHE) review.
“Large scale antibody surveillance studies are crucial to helping us understand how the virus has spread across the country and whether there are specific groups who are more vulnerable, as we continue our work to drive down the spread of the disease”, said UK Health Minister Edward Argar.
“We don’t yet know that antibodies provide immunity to coronavirus, but the more information we can gather on this virus, and the easier we can make it for people to participate in these studies, the better equipped we will be to respond”, he said, urging more volunteers to sign up to other surveillance studies taking place over the coming months as part of the government’s national testing effort.
The antibody study tracked the spread of the deadly virus across England following the first peak of the pandemic in June-July and found that almost everyone with a confirmed coronavirus case was found to have antibodies.
Those aged 18-34 were most likely to have antibodies (8 per cent) with the lowest prevalence in those over 65 (3 per cent).
Experts highlighted that testing positive for antibodies does not mean someone is immune to COVID-19, as there is no firm evidence yet that the presence of antibodies means someone cannot be re-infected with the virus. Therefore, people testing positive for antibodies are still required to follow national guidelines including social distancing measures, getting a swab test if they have symptoms and wearing face coverings where required.
However, the findings of the study are expected to help fine-tune government policies around combating coronavirus as the country tries to come out of lockdown in phases.
The first mass antibody surveillance study of its kind was rolled out across England using a finger prick test that can be used by individuals at home because mass surveillance of antibodies in the population is vital to track the extent of infection across the country and identify differences between areas and different groups of the population, the government’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
While research showed several finger prick tests were accurate enough for large-scale surveillance studies to monitor the spread of COVID-19, no antibody fingerpick test has yet met the official health regulator’s criteria for individual use, which means none are currently approved for use outside of surveillance studies, the department clarified.
“There are still many unknowns with this new virus, including the extent to which the presence of antibodies offers protection against future infections. Using the finger-prick tests suitable for large scale home testing has given us clearest insight yet into the spread of the virus in the country and who has been at greatest risk”, said Professor Graham Cooke, NIHR Research Professor of Infectious Diseases and research lead at Imperial College London.
“These data will have important implications as decisions to ease lockdown restrictions in England”, said Cooke.
This surveillance study will be repeated again in the coming autumn months and will test a further 200,000 people for antibodies.
“The thorough and rigorous work carried out by Imperial College London has allowed us to find a robust at home finger prick test for COVID-19 antibodies. This is the springboard for developing a far greater understanding of COVID-19 antibodies and how prevalent they are in the population through our large-scale antibody study, conducted with over 100,000 members of the public”, said Kelly Beaver, Managing Director, Public Affairs, Ipsos MORI, one of the partners of the study.
A further two studies showed some antibody finger prick tests were both easy to use at home and accurate enough for use in mass surveillance studies. Taken together these studies provide one of the most comprehensive assessments of home antibody self-testing to date, the DHSC said.
The studies are part of the UK government’s REACT programme, being carried out in partnership with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Ipsos MORI.