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expert reaction to first round of results from UK Biobank study on SARS-CoV-2 antibody levels across the UK and over time

The government have announced the first round of results from the UK Biobank study on SARS-CoV-2 antibody levels across the UK and over time.


Prof Eleanor Riley, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease, University of Edinburgh, said:

“This is the largest serology data set analysed so far.  Given that antibody testing is not 100% accurate, it is important to focus on patterns rather than absolute numbers.  Rather than trying to figure out exactly who has been infected – or exactly how many people have been infected – we should focus on using the data to understand which parts of the country, and which groups within our population, have experienced more or less infection.  That said, the findings are very much in line with previous data regarding the  geographic spread of the infection and the distribution amongst different population groups.  As these analyses are repeated over the coming months, the data will also give us important information on trends – is infection being contained or is it continuing to spread and if so where?

“Of interest, however, is the noticeably higher prevalence of antibodies among the BAME population and in younger people.  This supports the observation that younger people may be adhering less stringently to social distancing guidelines.  It also suggests that whilst BAME groups might be more vulnerable to severe disease once infected, they are also more likely to be infected in the first place.  Bringing these data together with health and socioeconomic data will help us to better understand the risks of severe disease and death from this infection among different population groups.  This will be essential for effectively managing what seems to be becoming an endemic infection that we will have to live with for some time to come.”


Prof John Edmunds, Professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“This is a detailed and important study that confirms what we have seen from other, similar, surveys.  Overall infection rates vary somewhat across the country but overall they are relatively low.  Around 93% of us remain susceptible to this virus, so if we ease social restrictions too much then the epidemic will return.”


Prof Richard Tedder, Visiting Professor in Medical Virology, Imperial College London, said:

“This is a really interesting and well structured survey flawed by the sense that it seems not possible to discover which test has been used to define seropositivity.  If, as to be expected, this is based on antibody to nucleo-protein on either of the two big commercial platforms, there will be both a lack of sensitivity which we have already demonstrated and a potential false positivity because of cross relationships antigenically on nucleo-protein between SARS CoV 2 and the four seasonal coronavirus is already circulating in the UK.  Whilst it is to be expected that those involved in this study will be aware of these reservations, I see no evidence that they have acknowledged these potential problems.  That said even if there is a consistent under ascertainment using nucleo-protein antibody or a level of false reactivity, temporal comparisons and geographic comparisons still stand and are valid.”


All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:


Declared interests

Prof Eleanor Riley: “No COIs to declare.”

None others received.

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