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UKHSA and ONS launch Winter COVID-19 Infection Study

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The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will jointly launch a new study to gather data on COVID-19 this winter.

The Winter COVID-19 Infection Study (WCIS) will run from November 2023 to March 2024, involving up to 200,000 participants, UKHSA has said on Monday (October 2).

UKHSA previously commissioned the Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS), conducted by the ONS in collaboration with scientific study leaders from Oxford University, analysing more than 11.5 million swab tests and 3 million blood tests from April 2020 to March 2023.

Meanwhile, the Winter CIS study involves conducting up to 32,000 lateral flow tests weekly, providing vital insights into COVID-19 prevalence in the broader community. The sample will be structured to broadly reflect key population characteristics.

Though widespread vaccination has enabled us to coexist with COVID-19, certain individuals still face a higher risk of severe illness. Consequently, this can place added strain on the NHS during the winter months, the UKHSA said in a statement.

That’s why the UKHSA is urging eligible adults to schedule their flu and COVID-19 vaccines online via the NHS website, or by using the NHS App, the statement added. Patients can also call 119 for free if they’re unable to go online. This provides them with the best protection against severe illness and hospitalisation, the UKHSA said.

UKHSA’s current surveillance systems offer real-time data on hospital and ICU admission rates. However, the implementation of this study will enable it to identify shifts in the Infection Hospitalisation Rate (IHR), necessitating precise measurement of infection levels within the community.

By calculating the IHR, UKHSA can evaluate the potential for heightened demand on healthcare services stemming from shifts in the virus’s transmission patterns, which might be influenced by the emergence of new variants.

“The data we collected alongside the ONS during the pandemic provided us with a huge amount of valuable insight, so I am delighted that we are able to work together again to keep policymakers and the wider public informed in the coming months,” said Professor Steven Riley, Director General of Data, Analytics and Surveillance at the UK Health Security Agency.

“UKHSA continues to lead the way internationally on COVID-19 surveillance and by re-introducing a study of positivity in the community, we can better detect changes in the behaviour of the virus,” he added.

The study will utilise UKHSA Lateral Flow Devices (LFDs). The latest UKHSA technical briefing, published on 21 September, included initial findings of tests performed in the laboratory at Porton Down to examine the effectiveness of LFDs in detecting BA.2.86, and found no reduction in sensitivity compared to previous variants. The model and scale of this study could also be converted into a programme that captures data on different respiratory viruses, should that be required in future.

“ONS is committed to building on the experience of standing up the gold standard Covid Infection Survey,” said Emma Rourke, Deputy National Statistician, at the Office for National Statistics. “Our resources and statistical expertise are here for the public good, and we are delighted to be delivering this study in partnership with the UKHSA. There remains a need for robust data to help us continue to understand the virus and its effects during the winter months.”

“As well as working to provide UKHSA with regular rates of positivity, we will also be looking at analysis of symptoms, risk factors and the impact of respiratory infections, including long covid, as part of this important surveillance,” Emma added.

In September, the International Pharmaceutical Federation released a new policy statement advocating for a “life-course” approach to vaccination by pharmacists. This approach supports extending vaccine schedules and strategies, enabling individuals of all age groups to receive vaccinations throughout their entire lifespan, from infancy through to old age. It emphasises prioritising an individual’s health and well-being, including a comprehensive vaccination regimen administered across their entire life span.

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