With many questions left unanswered about Covid-19, the HSE is launching a new survey of 5,000 people to see how widely the disease has spread.
As restrictions continue to be eased across the country, the HSE is now attempting to understand how prevalent Covid-19 is in Ireland. To do this, it is launching a new national antibody research project called Scopi (study to investigate Covid-19 infection in people living in Ireland).
Although officials have been keeping track of the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases based on testing, it is not clear how many people have had the virus but weren’t tested, or had mild or no symptoms and were not aware they had the virus. Scopi will test for presence of Covid-19 antibodies in Irish people, which would indicate that a person has been infected with the virus.
With a recent study suggesting that up to 45pc of people with the coronavirus could be asymptomatic, Irish researchers and health authorities are eager to understand the spread of Covid-19, the age groups it has affected, and what needs to be done to control it.
Here is what to expect from Scopi now and in the future.
Who is taking part?
From today (15 June), 5,000 people will be sent letters asking to take part in Scopi by measuring exposure to Covid-19 infection through an antibody blood test. While it is a national survey, the study will first only test people from Dublin and Sligo. Dublin was chosen as it is the county with the highest number of known cases, while Sligo has one of the lowest.
This, the HSE said, would provide an overall national estimate in the Irish population. However, the plan is to repeat antibody research in other areas of the country over the coming year. Those who receive a letter but don’t want to take part are being asked to reply as per instructions in the letter.
Who is being selected for the study?
A random sample of the population will receive a letter informing them that they have been chosen and will ask them whether they want to take part or not.
Anyone over the age of 12 can take part in the study, but participants are pre-selected, meaning applications from the general public will not be accepted. Parental or guardian consent will be needed if someone younger than 18 has been selected.
If I’m chosen, how will I be tested?
Firstly, those who consent will be asked to complete a questionnaire by phone with a member of staff at the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC). After that, they will be asked to provide a blood sample to test for antibodies, which will be arranged by the HSE.
What would make me ineligible to take part?
Not everyone who gets a letter will be able to provide a blood test. The HSE said that those who are ineligible include those who have been advised to cocoon and those who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the 14 days prior to the Scopi test.
A person is also ineligible if they have coronavirus symptoms or are restricting movement because of close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Those who can’t provide a blood test will still able to do the phone questionnaire.
What will happen with my results?
Once results of an individual’s Covid-19 antibody test are available, they will be contacted to ask whether they want to know the results. If that person consents, the results will be sent by post within a period of six weeks, in addition to a copy being sent to their GP.
If someone does have antibodies for Covid-19, they will be asked to take part in a second study. This includes another questionnaire on Covid-19 symptoms and a further three blood tests over a 12-month period.
What happens my blood sample and personal data after testing?
Once the sample has been sent to the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) at University College Dublin and tested, it will be stored there for a period of two years. After this point it will be destroyed and will only be used for research related to antibodies by this study’s research team.
The only organisations allowed to see a subject’s personal information are the HSE, the HPSC and the NVRL, along with the patient’s GP.
Speaking of Scopi, director of the NVRL, Dr Cillian de Gascun, said: “The antibody test we are using has recently been shown in international studies to be both sensitive, in that it detects the majority of people with antibodies, and specific in that a positive test is an accurate reflection of infection.
“The main benefit of this testing is at the population level; individuals will be advised not to use their result as a basis for clinical decisions about diagnosis or management.”