Imperial College London

Latest findings from coronavirus testing programme show decline of virus in June

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Man wearing a mask

A major programme of community coronavirus testing tracking the spread of infection in England has published its second report.

Building on the first report tracking the virus in May, the study was upscaled to test over 150,000 people between 19 June and 8 July, revealing the virus continued to decline in this period. 

The programme, led by Imperial College London found that for every 10,000 people tested, approximately 8 had the virus. The first report showed a higher average, with 13 cases for every 10,000 people tested. Researchers also calculated the overall reproduction number (known as the R number) for this period, which was 0.58, similar to May’s level of 0.57.

The research showed the prevalence of infection decreased to 0.077%, compared to May’s rate of 0.13% despite some lockdown restrictions being eased in June. Rules were modified on 1 June to allow people to leave their houses for any reason, meet up to six people from different households in parks and gardens while maintaining social distance.

“Through our community testing programme, we’re beginning to build a more informed picture of COVID-19 across England." Professor Paul Elliot Chair in Epidemiology and Public Health Medicine, School of Public Health

These findings from the REal-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT 1) programme have been posted on the pre-print platform medRxiv and will also be submitted peer-review.

The REACT programme, the biggest of its kind, is a series of studies that are monitoring how the virus is spreading across the country. Commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, it is being carried out in partnership with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Ipsos MORI.

The research is offering insight into infection rates broken down by geography, age, sex, ethnicity, key worker status and symptoms. The first report published in July tracking the spread of infection in May, provided a baseline for further research as the programme continues over the coming months. The programme is critical to understanding the effectiveness of public health measures to control the epidemic and to inform ongoing strategies as the situation evolves. 

Professor Paul Elliott, Director of the programme at Imperial from the School of Public Health said:

“Through our community testing programme, we’re beginning to build a more informed picture of COVID-19 across England. This surveillance programme is showing us the prevalence of infection between different demographics, age groups and ethnicities as well as giving us insight into how easing lockdown restrictions are affecting the infection rate.”

Coronavirus in the community

This study found that although London experienced a fall in infections between 19 June and 8 July with a rate of 0.15% compared to 0.20% in May, the prevalence of the virus in London was still higher than other regions in England. In the capital, positive cases were found to be closer to each other than negative cases were.

Consistent with findings from May, the report suggested individuals from Asian backgrounds continue to have high rates of the infection at 1.0% compared to those of white ethnicity who account for 0.07% of cases. Individuals from black and other ethnicities were also disproportionately affected with 0.15% of these groups having the infection.

Among positive cases, the report found that there was no significant difference between gender, households of different sizes, nor were rates of infection higher in one age group than another during the period. There were also no major differences between the prevalence of infection for key workers and non-key workers compared to May results which found that care workers and health workers had a higher risk of infection. 

81% of participants who tested positive for coronavirus did not experience any symptoms in the seven days prior, or on the day of the swab test. This figure compares with 69% of those who showed no symptoms and tested positive in May. For these cases, individuals may have later developed symptoms.

These insights from the second report have been welcomed by the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock: 

“This research highlights how, thanks to everyone’s efforts and sacrifice, alongside targeted measures to counter the spread of this virus in health and care settings, we were able to keep rates of infection low as some restrictions were lifted.  

“However, we must not be complacent. I urge everyone to get a test if you have symptoms, self-isolate and provide your contacts to NHS Test and Trace so we can continue to keep the virus at bay and get back to normal.” 

Tracking the virus

For the second REACT 1 report, the study was upscaled from 120,000 in May to over 150,000 participants. Individuals over the age of five from across England were randomly selected and asked to provide throat and nose swabs. 

The tests looked for antigens in participants, which are substances indicating the presence of the virus. The group was also asked to fill out a questionnaire, which gathered information on age, sex, ethnicity, key worker status, demographics, living situation and symptoms. 

Next steps for the research 

The study will be repeated on a monthly basis to help track the spread of the virus in England.

Kelly Beaver, Managing Director, Public Affairs at Ipsos MORI said:

“The second report from this hugely significant study has underlined the importance of random, at home testing to determine the prevalence of Covid-19 throughout England as we go through the different stages of this pandemic. Ipsos MORI is incredibly grateful to all those members of the public who agreed to take part in the study.”

In the second part of the programme (REACT-2), a number of different fingerpick antibody tests have been assessed for their accuracy and ease of use at home. These tests look for evidence that someone has been infected in the past. 

One test has since been rolled out to 100,000 people to identify the levels of antibodies against the virus in the general public. A report on this is expected later this month.



Notes

  • Out of the 159,199 swab tests carried out in the period, 123 were positive.
  • The pre-print report can be accessed here.
  • Anyone who tested positive or had symptoms of COVID-19, or both, were advised to self-isolate with other members of the household according to Government guidelines. People who test positive are being referred to the NHS Test and Trace for contact tracing.
  • Download Ipsos MORI's infographic for the findings here.
  • This study falls under Pillar 4 of the Covid-19 National Testing Programme, which focuses on mass surveillance in the general population.
  • This is the second study from REACT 1 which looks at a representative cross section of the whole population. Details of the first study can be found here.

Reporter

Nikita Rathod

Nikita Rathod
Institute of Global Health Innovation

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