The UK has had at least 3.5million coronavirus cases and the virus ‘will be with us for a very long time’, Britain’s top statistics expert says.
Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician, made the comments on the Andrew Marr Show this morning.
He said that blood testing to look for antibodies that prove someone has had Covid-19 suggests between five and seven per cent of people in England have had the virus.
This means between 2.75million and 3.85million people have had Covid-19 already, with the vast majority of them recovering and not ever getting diagnosed.
His statistic, however, does not align exactly with earlier data from Public Health England’s estimate, which suggests more people have had the illness.
PHE, using a bigger sample size, put it at 8.5 per cent at the beginning of this month, suggesting around 4.6million people in England have had the coronavirus already.
The UK’s chief statistician, Professor Ian Diamond, said this morning: ‘My own belief is that this virus is going to be with us for a very long time’
Speaking to the BBC today Professor Diamond said: ‘What we’re finding is between five and seven per cent of the population – more in London – have had it.
‘And that suggests to me that around 3.5million people in England have either had the virus or have natural antibodies to it.’
Antibody testing is the most accurate way to work out how many people have had a disease already and it relies on testing the blood of a sample of people.
In the blood the tests look for antibodies, which are substances made by the immune system when someone is infected with a specific disease.
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of people testing positive for current infection with Covid-19 has tumbled in England since April
WHAT IS AN ANTIBODY TEST AND WHAT IS IT USED FOR?
Antibody tests are ones which look for signs of past infection in someone’s blood.
Antibodies are substances produced by the immune system which store memories of how to fight off a specific virus. They can only be created if the body is exposed to the virus by getting infected for real, or through a vaccine or other type of specialist immune therapy.
Generally speaking, antibodies produce immunity to a virus because they are redeployed if it enters the body for a second time, defeating the bug faster than it can take hold and cause an illness.
An antibody test, which involves analysis of someone’s blood sample, has two purposes: to reveal whether an individual has been infected in the past and may therefore be protected against the virus, and to count those people.
Knowing you are immune to a virus – although whether people actually develop immunity to Covid-19 is still unknown – can affect how you act in the future. Someone may need to protect themselves less if they know they have been infected, for example, or medical staff may be able to return to work in the knowledge they are not at risk.
Counting the numbers of people who have antibodies is the most accurate way of calculating how many people in a population have had the virus already.
This can be done on a small sample of the population and the figures scaled up to give a picture of the country as a whole.
In turn, this can inform scientists and politicians how devastating a second outbreak might be, and how close the country is to herd immunity – a situation in which so many people have had the virus already that it would not be able to spread quickly a second time.
Experts believe that around 60 per cent exposure would be required for herd immunity from Covid-19, but the UK does not appear to be anywhere close to that.
Early estimates suggest 17 per cent of Londoners have had the virus, along with five per cent of the rest of the country – about 4.83million people.
This means the virus might spread slightly slower in future but the risk of second outbreak and hundreds or thousands more deaths remains very real.
If someone gets Covid-19 they develop antibodies which react with it, and these store the body’s memory of how to fight off the virus if it gets into the body again.
The presence of them in the blood indicates that someone has had Covid-19 already.
Professor Diamond referenced the results of tests done on 1,757 people since April 26, which found that 5.4 per cent of them had had the virus.
The possible range of this was between 4.3 per cent and 6.5 per cent – meaning the true figure could be somewhere between 2.36m and 3.57m people.
Meanwhile, a Public Health England report published at the start of this month suggested, from the results of around 8,000 people – a bigger sample – that the rate of past infection was 8.5 per cent, and potentially as high as 10 per cent.
PHE’s data was based on blood tests taken from 7,694 people across England in May, of whom around 654 tested positive.
Public Health England’s best estimate was that 8.5 per cent of people in England had already had the coronavirus – 4.76million people. But this, it admitted, could be as high as 10 per cent (5.6m) or as low as 6.9 per cent (3.864m).
Regional variations showed at the time that the rate of infection had been considerably higher in London, with 15.6 per cent of the city’s population already affected.
And it had been lowest in the South West, where only 2.6 per cent of people were thought to have had the virus.
More recent reports from PHE do not appear to have substantially changed the estimates, although they have come down in some areas where testing numbers have increased.
An earlier report from the Office for National Statistics had put the national level of past infection at 6.78 per cent – around 4.5million people in the UK – but this was based on fewer than 900 tests.
As the ONS has increased the number of test it is doing, the proportion of the population thought to have been infected has fallen.
On its website the organisation said: ‘This is lower than the percentage presented in our previous publication, but compatible with the previous estimates of uncertainty.
‘It is important to note that this change does not represent a trend over time, but relates to a change in our available sample of blood tests.
‘The analysis in this bulletin is based on blood test results from 1,757 individuals since the start of the study on 26 April 2020, compared with 885 individuals tested in the previous bulletin.’
Asked how he thought the UK’s current outbreak would progress, Professor Diamond admitted he did not think Britain was close to the end.
He said: ‘The virus hasn’t gone away and we need to move into a period of surveillance and real vigilance to identify any outbreaks and move to get on top of them really, really quickly.’
He said the current estimates of around 3,000 to 4,000 new cases of Covid-19 each day were ‘relatively low’ but added: ‘My own belief is that this virus is going to be with us for a very long time and we are going to have to be absolutely vigilant to check we are on top of the outbreaks which will come’.
EVERY RECOVERED COVID-19 PATIENTS DEVELOPS ANTIBODIES – BUT THEY MAY NOT BLOCK THE INFECTION AGAIN
Most people who recover from the novel coronavirus generate at least some antibodies capable of neutralizing SARS-CoV-2, the first round of results from a new study suggest.
While many antibodies grab hold of the virus, only a few counteract the pathogen and prevent it from entering our cells.
Researchers from Rockefeller University in New York City looked at 149 recovered patients and determined that the majority had a weak antibody response.
However, they found that every patient’s immune system seemed to be capable of generating the types of antibodies that neutralize the virus, just not particularly enough of them.
‘This suggests just about everybody can do this, which is very good news for vaccines,’ Dr Michel C Nussenzweig, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Immunology at Rockefeller, said in a statement.
‘It means if you were able to create a vaccine that elicits these particular antibodies, then the vaccine is likely to be effective and work for a lot of people.’
For the study, published on pre-peer review site bioRxiv.org, the team looked at 149 people who donated plasma at The Rockefeller Hospital in New York City over the course of five weeks.
Convalescent plasma is the liquid portion of blood is taken from a recovered coronavirus patient, which contains antibodies and immune B-cells.
Participants had symptoms of the virus for about 12 days while infected, and their first symptoms occurred about 39 days before they donated plasma.
Researchers then mixed the plasma with a pseudo coronavirus and measured if or how well the virus would infect human cells in a petri dish.
Most samples did not do very well at neutralizing the virus.
In fact, the neutralizing effect was undetectable in 33 per cent of donors. The investigators say this may be because their immune systems cleared the infection before antibodies could be produced.
They found that the effect was very high among one percent of patients, so-called ‘elite donors.’
The team identified 40 antibodies that neutralized the virus, and focused on three that did so even at low levels.
These antibodies bound to at least three sites on the spike protein found on the surface of the coronavirus that it uses to enter our cells.
Researchers now plan to clone these antibodies in hopes it will help patients with severe or life-threatening cases of the virus.
‘We now know what an effective antibody looks like and we have found similar ones in more than one person,’ Robbiani said.