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Up to 20,000 people are being asked to take part in a new government-funded study to track the extent of the coronavirus spread across England, Scotland and Wales. UK Biobank and the Nuffield Department of Population Health will analyse the data and provide regular reports to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to help guide the Government’s strategy for tackling COVID-19.

The research will measure blood antibodies to help understand what proportion of the population has already had the infection, the duration of immunity after being infected, and why the virus can affect people differently.

Led by UK Biobank and supported by the DHSC, the study, which was developed with Wellcome, also draws on the world-leading scientific expertise of the University of Oxford. It 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 virus.

The study participants will be chosen from existing, consented UK Biobank volunteers, as well as their adult children and grandchildren. This is the first time UK Biobank has opened up a research study to the next generation of participants, which will help to ensure that all regions, ages and socio-economic groups are represented.

Each month, participants will be asked to provide a sample of blood using a finger‐prick device, and to complete a short questionnaire about any relevant symptoms they may have experienced. The de-identified samples will be returned to UK Biobank for processing before being sent for validated antibody testing at the University of Oxford.

This information will help inform future Government strategy on the ongoing response to the virus, including lockdown and social distancing measures. The first results from initial participants are expected to be available in early June.

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock said: ‘This UK Biobank study will build our understanding of the rate of COVID-19 infection in the general population and, importantly, it will add to our knowledge about the risk factors that mean the virus can affect individuals differently.

‘Alongside the ongoing ONS and Imperial College research, the results of this study will assist our virus modelling and inform future plans for managing the pandemic.’

UK Biobank has been following the health of 500,000 UK participants over the last 10 years through detailed health records, genetic and lifestyle data. As a result, it is uniquely well-placed to investigate whether the immune response to coronavirus differs between people with different genetic backgrounds.

UK Biobank Principal Investigator and Head of the Nuffield Department of Population Health, Professor Sir Rory Collins said: ‘We believe most people have mild or no symptoms of infection with coronavirus, but a small proportion fall very ill. This study will help determine the proportion of people who have been infected and, crucially, how long they are immune from further infection.

‘Much better understanding of what proportion of the population has been infected, how long antibodies to coronavirus stay in the blood, and whether immunity wears off, are vital to managing this pandemic.’

Professor Naomi Allen, Chief Scientist of UK Biobank, added ‘Colleagues at Oxford’s Target Discovery Institute have developed, in record time, an accurate test for measuring antibody levels to coronavirus, which will help us to understand what proportion of the population have been infected and how long immunity is likely to last for. This study is therefore hugely important to help us manage the longer-term consequences of the pandemic.’