Major long-term study monitoring spread of COVID-19 in the general population to track impact of vaccination via millions of blood samples

The UK-wide study with more than 400,000 people currently enrolled, led by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), draws on the world-leading scientific expertise of the University of Oxford to track the spread of COVID-19 in the general population.

  • The number of participants giving antibody blood samples will be gradually increased up to approximately 150,000; these participants will take a finger-prick blood test as well as their regular nose and throat swabs.
  • Each blood sample will be tested for antibodies against the N (nucleocapsid) protein in addition to the S (spike) protein currently tested for; this should enable antibody responses to be categorised as compatible with vaccination (because the vaccines only target the spike protein, so will be N-negative) or compatible with natural infection (positive for both antibodies).
  • Participants selected to give blood samples (both existing and newly invited) will also be asked to remain in the study until April 2022, rather than the current maximum of a year.
  • These changes will be made across England, and in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the study is delivered in partnership with the devolved administrations.

The new focus comes as the government vaccine rollout programme reaches 30,151,287 first doses. Therefore, the focus is now on how effective the vaccines are in fighting the virus and understanding how they affect transmission.

National Statistician Sir Ian Diamond said:

“The next phase of this crucial study will help to inform our understanding of COVID-19 immunity in the UK population at any given time.

“COVID-19 has already been a formidable test of our ability to gather and analyse data quickly. The next phase will be no less demanding. But this critical work would not be possible without the continuing participation of hundreds of thousands of people in every part of the UK. I thank them sincerely for getting us this far. We’ll be counting on them a while longer to help us over the line.”

Health Minister Lord Bethell said:

“The UK continues to lead the world providing innovative and highly rigorous COVID-19 research and surveillance studies, which are vital in helping track infections and understand how the virus is spreading in different regions and communities.

“Extending the ONS research to look at vaccine efficacy will deepen our understanding of how vaccines are impacting infection rates and the spread of the virus as we work through our roadmap out of lockdown.

“"I am hugely grateful to everyone who has taken part so far and I trust we can all count on their continued involvement.”

Professor Sarah Walker from the University of Oxford Nuffield Department of Medicine said:

“Extending the survey will help us answer critical questions over the coming months, including whether some groups of people respond better to vaccination, how long vaccination protects people against getting infected for and whether new variants affect this.

“By giving a very small amount of blood every month, our survey participants will help the country work out how best to manage COVID-19 in the future.”


Notes to editors

  • The ONS COVID–19 Infection Survey forms part of Pillar 4 of the government's COVID-19 testing strategy, to conduct UK-wide surveillance to learn more about the spread of the disease and help inform the development of new tests and treatments.
  • More than 400,000 people are currently enrolled in the study with most taking monthly swab tests for infections under the supervision of a trained study worker with a smaller group giving full-draw blood samples, which are tested for antibodies.
  • Since its conception in April 2020 the survey has successfully collected over 3.5 million swab samples from over 200,000 different UK households and is recognised as an important source of reliable data on the path of the virus. -Current infection levels will continue to be determined by participants taking a self-swab from the throat and nose. Antibody levels, from either prior exposure or vaccination, will be determined by taking a venous blood draw (taken by trained personnel) or finger prick blood draw (taken by the participant).
  • The analysis from the data collected will not be a new release but will be included in our existing Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey: antibody data for the UK article series, released every other week.
  • Participants aged under 16 years will not be asked to provide a blood sample but will continue with swab testing.
  • The next article in this series is released on 30 March 2021 and will include the new data from the surveillance study.

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