A new study is being launched by the Government to track the spread of coronavirus in the population and get a full picture of the number of infections.
It is hoped the research will help scientists understand the current rate of infection in the UK and how many people have developed antibodies to the virus.
Some 20,000 households in England are being contacted to take part in the first-wave of the research, with initial findings expected in early May.
All participants will provide a nose and throat swab to test for whether or not they currently have the virus, while 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.
A technician scanning test tubes containing live samples during the opening of the new COVID-19 testing lab at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow on Wednesday
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), leading the study with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), said 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.
In total, the Government says some 25,000 people will take part in the pilot phase with plans to extend it to up to around 300,000 over the next 12 months.
Scientists will also analyse blood samples from adults in around 1,000 households to determine how many people have developed antibodies to the virus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a hybrid session of the House of Commons yesterday. He said the new survey will help track the current extent of transmission in the UK
Official statistics showed that the number of people in hospital with coronavirus continues to fall in many parts of the country
The number of new cases of the virus in the UK was up on the previous day but is down from over the weekend
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 said at Wednesday’s daily Downing Street briefing that there is currently not a test available that Public Health England (PHE) has enough confidence in.
Participants in the antibody test will be asked to give further samples monthly for the next 12 months.
The Government says 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 involve the University of Oxford, data science company IQVIA UK and the National Biosample Centre in Milton Keynes.
A scientist holding an antibody test to use with a blood sample for the coronavirus at a laboratory of the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology at the InfectoGnostics research campus in Jena, Germany
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.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘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.
A lab technician wearing full PPE cleaning a test tube containing a live sample taken from people tested for coronavirus at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow yesterday
‘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.’
On Tuesday it was announced the first British human trials for a vaccine will begin recruiting volunteers this week.
It is hoped the new inoculation, which normally would take around 18 months to develop, could see large-scale production under way as early as September – only nine months after the virus came to light in Wuhan, China.
Yesterday the UK has announced 763 more hospital deaths from the coronavirus, taking Britain’s total number of victims to 18,094.
But the coronavirus outbreak in the UK may have killed more than 41,000 people already when non-hospital deaths are included.
An analysis of backdated statistics by the Financial Times has predicted that, by the time care home deaths and unrecorded hospital fatalities are added up, it could emerge that 41,102 people had died by April 21. The official toll was 17,337.