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New study to identify highest risk factors for COVID-19

Scientists are calling on the public to sign up to a new study which will help identify who is most at risk of contracting COVID-19 and why some people become more ill than others with the disease.

Public health scientists at Queen’s University Belfast are collaborating with colleagues from Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the University of Edinburgh and Swansea University on the COVIDENCE UK study. Funded by the Barts Charity, the study aims to recruit at least 12,000 people, aged 16 or over, from across the UK.

The study aims to recruit as diverse a group of volunteers as possible, including those who have already had proven or suspected COVID-19 and those who have not. The team also want to include a mixture of people both with and without underlying conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease and high blood pressure. The information gathered will help scientists to understand why certain people appear to be at greater risk.

Professor Frank Kee, Director at the Centre for Public Health, Queen’s University Belfast, said: "This study represents a tremendous opportunity for the public to help researchers to discover better ways to defeat the COVID virus and people from Northern Ireland can play a vital role in that effort.”

Study lead, Adrian Martineau, Professor of Respiratory Infection and Immunity at Queen Mary University of London, explains: “We know that people with certain medical conditions seem to be at increased risk of coronavirus disease. However, we don’t know why this is. Is it because people with these conditions tend to be older? Is it something to do with the underlying condition itself? Could particular medications affect the risk? Or are lifestyle factors such as smoking or different dietary patterns which tend to go along with some of these conditions important? The answers to these questions could help us to devise new strategies to reduce infection risk, while we are waiting for an effective vaccine to come along.”

The team also hope the data they gather will help to explain why the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 include a high proportion of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Recruits are asked to sign up at and fill in a detailed initial questionnaire, covering their medical history, lifestyle and behaviour in terms of social distancing, hand-washing etc. Simple monthly updates will then track any new symptoms. The study will also automatically draw on patients’ NHS records to include information on test results and hospitalisations.

How fast the team can analyse this information to help protect those most at risk will depend on how quickly they can recruit the numbers required.

“If we can reach our 12,000 target, particularly if a significant proportion of participants have already had a positive test for COVID-19, then we should be able to get some early results in the next few weeks,” says Professor Martineau. “We also hope to understand why the severity of the disease differs so much across individuals, with some having no symptoms to otherwise healthy young people – albeit in small numbers – dying from the disease.”

The team also aim to see how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting people’s mental well-being – and vice versa.

Professor Gerome Breen from King’s College London explains: “Our mental health, particularly depression and anxiety, is closely entwined with our physical health and can play a role in how well we fight an illness or respond to treatment. That’s why we want to measure mental as well as physical well-being, to see if that can help predict the likelihood of an adverse outcome.”

The study, which will run for up to five years, will also create a platform to fast-track future trials of preventative treatments, such as dietary supplements, to see if they help to protect against COVID-19. Recruits will be asked if they are willing to be approached to take part in future trials when they sign up to be involved.


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