London: The British government announced plans Thursday for a major study to track coronavirus in the general population, with as many as 300,000 people expected to take part within a year.
In a first phase, a representative sample of 25,000 people will be regularly tested using self-administered nose and throat swabs, to establish if they currently have COVID-19.
Regular blood samples will also be taken from adults from around 1,000 households to help assess how many people have developed antibodies.
Initial findings could be available in early May, the health ministry said, and would likely inform the government's decisions on how to ease a month-long nationwide lockdown imposed to stem the spread of the virus.
Britain is one of the worst-hit countries in the global pandemic, with 18,100 deaths recorded so far in hospitals alone.
Testing restricted currently
Testing for coronavirus infection is currently largely restricted to frontline health and care workers in Britain, although ministers have vowed to ramp this up in the coming weeks.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the large-scale survey "will help to track the current extent of transmission and infection in the UK, while also answering crucial questions about immunity".
"Together, these results will help us better understand the spread of the virus to date, predict the future trajectory and inform future action we take, including, crucially, the development of ground-breaking new tests and treatments," he said.
The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, said on Wednesday that there is not yet a reliable antibody test to establish whether someone has had coronavirus in the past.
"We do not yet have a test that is as good as we would want," he said, but added that he hoped it would be developed in the "pretty near future".