The UKHSA and Office of National Statistics (ONS) announced in October 2023 that they are launching a “vital study” to understand COVID-19 infection data throughout the winter. The Winter COVID-19 Infection Study (WCIS) will begin in November 2023 and run until March 2024. It is expected to involve up to 200,000.
CIS to WCIS
During the COVID-19 pandemic the UKHSA commissioned the Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS), which was carried out by ONS in partnership with the University of Oxford. This study was “recognised globally as the gold standard for surveillance of the virus”. It collected and analysed over 11.5 million swab tests and 3 million blood tests between April 2020 and March 2023.
The new study will involve up to 32,000 lateral flow tests, carried out every week, to provide “key insight” into the levels of the virus in circulation across the community. The lateral flow devices (LFDs) will be supplied by UKHSA. The model and scale of the study could also be translated into a programme that supplies data on other respiratory viruses in the future if that is required.
Monitoring changes in hospitalisations
Although the UKHSA already gets information on hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions by “existing surveillance systems”, the new study will allow it to “detect changes” in the infection hospitalisation rate (IHR). This requires accurate measurement of infection levels in the community. Knowing the IHR will enable UKHSA to “assess the potential for increased demand on health services” as the virus spreads.
Professor Steven Riley, Director General of Data, Analytics, and Surveillance at UKHSA stated that the data collected with ONS during the pandemic “provided us with a huge amount of valuable insight”. He is “delighted” to continue the collaboration to “keep policymakers and the wider public informed”.
“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.”
Emma Rourke is ONS Deputy National Statistician and emphasised that her team is “committed to building on the experience of standing up the gold standard CIS”.
“Our resources and statistical expertise are here for the public good, and we are delighted to be delivering this study in partnership with UKHSA.”
She identified a continued need for “robust data” to help the country understand the virus and its effects throughout the winter. However, ONS is not just working to provide positivity rate insights.
“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 survey.”
UKHSA suggests that “widespread vaccination” has “allowed us to live with COVID-19″ but recognises that some people “remain more vulnerable to severe illness”. This level of illness can lead to ‘increased pressures” on the NHS over winter. Thus, UKHSA is “urging” eligible adults to book their flu and COVID-19 vaccines.