The first study aimed at establishing how prevalent Covid-19 has been across Irish communities is expected to take place in Dublin and Sligo next month.
The seroprevalence (a measure of the levels of a disease in a population measured by blood samples) study, which analyses people for antibodies which indicate they are either immune or may have had the coronavirus at some stage in the past, is one of the main approaches being taken in order to reopen Ireland on a basis of living alongside the virus - as opposed to its prevention or eradication.
Dr Cillian de Gascun, chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (NPHET) expert advisory group and director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, spoke about the study at a Department of Health briefing, saying “we certainly plan to start the study in June”.
The study has been in gestation for more than a month, with the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan previously stating that seroprevalence would form the main approach to combating the fact that up to 50% of the population who present with the virus are asymptomatic.
At the twice weekly meeting of NPHET held on May 5 a briefing note was presented to the group by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, entitled Study to Investigate Covid-19 Infection in the Irish Population (SCOPI).
The prospective study will be funded by the HSE and carried out by the HPSC and NVRL in conjunction with the Central Statistics Office and the Department of Health. It will be aimed at estimating “population age-specific immunity or past exposure to SARS-CoV-2”.
On the back of discussion as to how representative the study will be the HPSC said it constituted a “first approach” and had been agreed with the CSO as being “the most appropriate sampling strategy”.
It’s unclear why Dublin and Sligo have been selected as the two sample counties - though the former has presented nearly 50% of all Covid-19 infections across the country, while the Connacht county has one of the lowest rates with just 129 confirmed cases as at May 17.
Dr de Gascun said the study would involve “a small proportion” of the population, being chosen at random and then being invited to give blood which would be tested for the antibody to the coronavirus. The sample would “hopefully” be representative of the overall population, he said.
“We’d probably look at two different regions - one of a higher prevalence and one of a low prevalence,” he said, with the study’s results subsequently giving rise to further testing in different regions.
Meanwhile, NPHET has also heard of a separate study on seroprevalence in older Irish people, to be carried out by the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), while other studies are also in the works, including an evaluation of the treatment of infection in healthcare workers and the World Health Organisation’s solidarity trial on the effectiveness of the drug Remdesivir against Covid-19.
That drug, a broad-ranging antiviral with proven inhibitory effects on human and animal coronaviruses including that which causes Covid-19 (albeit only in laboratory settings), has been touted by the European Union as one which may be fast-tracked to market despite comprehensive data on its effectiveness and side effects not yet being available.