Researchers to determine community COVID-19 infection rates in the UK using serology, PCR and Nanopore Sequencing Technology

Researchers from the University of Oxford have received a generous philanthropic gift to conduct a UK cross-sectional survey study to determine the level of community-based infection of COVID-19.

The current global COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly increasing in scale and there is an urgent need to determine the background rate of infection in the UK to inform the public health response. 

Knowing the true COVID-19 prevalence in UK communities would dramatically inform the actions required to contain the outbreak and is vital for risk communication to the public. There is also an opportunity to compare diagnostic tools and validate an emerging pathogen-agnostic approach, which could greatly improve pandemic preparedness for future novel pathogen outbreaks.

Professor Mike Bonsall from the Department of Zoology is working alongside colleagues Dr Cassidy Nelson and Dr Simeon Innocent to explore the use of nanopore technology (which sequences the whole genome of pathogens) as a diagnostic tool, comparing with serology and PCR tests for COVID-19. Unlike these more conventional methods, nanopore sequencing does not require prior knowledge of the pathogen, making it unique in its ability to potentially assist in diagnosis of new emergent infectious diseases. 

“We have been grateful to receive generous and flexible philanthropic support from Ben Delo and Effective Giving to conduct this study”, said Professor Bonsall. “We propose a cross-sectional community-based survey will prove crucial to allow us to determine how common COVID-19 is in the UK community. Using rapid diagnostics, we will explore a new method of pathogen detection, which if widely adopted could prove crucial to early containment of future novel disease outbreaks.”

Natalie Cargill, CEO of Effective Giving, said: “Biosecurity has long been a focus area for our grant making, which is focussed on the most effective ways to positively influence the long-term future. Ben Delo was especially keen to support work that can inform the public health response to COVID-19 now, as well as build capacity to better respond to (potentially even more extreme) pandemics in the future.”

In this first instance, Professor Bonsall and team are working within Oxford – adult residents aged 18 years or older can volunteer to participate from home. Participants will be randomly selected to be sent a small test kit to their home alongside a full instruction guide, and will be asked to complete a short questionnaire and a finger-prick home test, as well as self-collect two throat swabs before returning their kit for sequencing via a pre-arranged courier service.

While the study is unable to inform participants of their results, collecting this data will allow us to understand the levels of COVID-19 infection in the community. Of the study, Professor Bonsall said: “This work is essential for public health planning and we will be sharing our results will be shared with PHE and the NHS.”

For full information on study design (terms & conditions, data management and analysis) and to volunteer as a participant, please visit: