UCL News


‘Virus Watch’ study launched to monitor spread of COVID-19 across England

17 April 2020

Thousands of people across the country will be tested for COVID-19 as part of two new Government funded studies led by UCL and UCLH to see how the coronavirus spreads among communities and NHS workers.

Electron microscopic image of Covid-19

The initiatives are part of a series of studies into coronavirus that form part of the £24.6 million rapid research response funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and by the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).  

Professor Andrew Hayward (UCL Epidemiology & Health Care) will lead the ‘Virus Watch’ study to recruit 25,000 individuals and collect data from April 2020 to March 2021. The £3.2 million ‘Virus Watch’ study will investigate the extent of the spread of coronavirus within communities and how social distancing affects the risk of infection.

Professor Hayward said: "So far most of our information about COVID-19 is from people who are ill enough to need to go to hospital. This means we have a very incomplete understanding of the infection and how we can fight it. 

“We will find out how common COVID-19 is over time, what is the full range of symptoms, how easily it spreads within the household, how the virus affects different age groups, those with chronic illness, different ethnic groups and different occupations. We will also investigate how people's movements and use of public spaces during periods of lockdown and when the lockdown is eased affect the risk of infection. 

“We will find out how many people have developed antibodies and how effectively these antibodies help to protect against future infection. All of this information will help the governments and public health agencies around the world decide on the best ways to minimise the harms of COVID-19.”

The Virus Watch research team will be releasing data throughout the study period.

Dr Eleni Nastouli (Head of Virology at UCLH and a consultant at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) will lead the Evaluation to Inform Response Study (SAFER) study, which is being run at UCLH and Royal Liverpool University Hospital. SAFER will be recruiting frontline NHS staff to study rates of COVID-19 infection among healthcare workers and is supported by the NIHR UCLH Biomedical Research Centre.

Dr Nastouli said: “I am delighted the MRC and UKRI are giving us the unique opportunity to inform best practice for staff management during the pandemic. Two hundred healthcare workers will be tested for SARS-CoV-2 repeatedly over time to assess the risk of acquiring the infection.

“We will also study healthcare worker behaviour, using digital tracking systems and interviews, and use this data to better inform health and safety measures to protect staff and patients, and hospital infection prevention and control. The team plans to use the data to advise on policy for the current pandemic and preparedness for future ones and we are confident we can rapidly assist our colleagues by delivering excellent research.”

UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur said: “UCL is proud that we are able to mobilise our world-leading research to contribute to the efforts against COVID-19 on both a national and international level. UCL is home to many experts-in-field who have moved rapidly to offer their expertise for the greater good. These UKRI studies led by Professor Hayward and Dr Nastouli are an important part of that effort and will be vital to enhancing our knowledge about the virus.”

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport said, “The research community’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been outstanding. In a matter of weeks, researchers have formed projects to develop potential vaccines, repurpose existing drugs and explore the potential for new medicines, and to examine how the virus is transmitted and causes wide variation in symptoms. Pre-clinical trials of vaccines and clinical trials of drugs are already underway.  

“The pace at which this work has been carried out is tribute to the UK’s world-class research base and its dedication to the fight against this disease.” 

Those who have been invited to take part in the study can register at http://ucl-virus-watch.net/.



Electron microscopic image of COVID-19 on the Public Health Image Library  Credit: Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin 

Media contact 

Mark Greaves

E: m.greaves [at] ucl.ac.uk

Tel: +44 (0)7539 410 389