Transformation Directorate

UK Biobank: understanding immunity to COVID-19

UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database and research resource, which holds in-depth genetic and health information from half a million UK volunteers, recruited between 2006 and 2010. UK Biobank is a rich resource, which allows approved researchers from around the world to access participant data to enable scientific discoveries that improve human health.

This includes a better understanding of the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses - including cancer, heart diseases, stroke and more recently COVID-19. Since the UK Biobank resource opened for research use in April 2012, almost 20,000 researchers from 90 countries are using the resource and 2,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published.

In May 2020, UK Biobank carried out a major government backed study of COVID-19 antibodies. The aim was to determine the levels of past infection in various population groups across the UK, as well as how long antibodies persist in those who are infected. The data from this study will be added to the UK Biobank research resource, enabling scientists globally to conduct further research.

Professor Naomi Allen, Chief Scientist at UK Biobank

“UK Biobank’s 500,000 participants are highly engaged in our research studies, which meant we were able to quickly ask them to get involved in this important research study into the spread of COVID-19 across the UK. We needed a broad range of age groups in the study but seeing as all UK Biobank participants are now over 50 years old, we also invited their adult children and grandchildren to take part. It’s the first time we have done this and we were overwhelmed at the response: over 116,000 individuals signed up to take part in the study, which we then whittled down to 20,000 people across all ages, regions and ethnic groups.

“Every month between June and November 2020 we collected blood samples and data on potential symptoms from these 20,000 individuals. We then analysed the extent of past COVID-19 infection across population subgroups and found substantial variation in the seroprevalence of COVID-19 infection by region, age, ethnic group and socio-economic status. Importantly, we found that 99% of participants who had positive COVID-19 antibodies still had detectable levels of antibodies 3 months after being infected, and 88% did so for the full 6 months of the study. This showed us that the antibodies produced following natural infection may provide a degree of protection for most people against further infection for at least 6 months.

“Although we can’t be certain how antibody levels correlate with immunity, the results suggest that antibodies last at least 6 months for the majority of people who are infected. These results come at such a critical time in our fight against this virus. Once added to UK Biobank’s rich resource, these data will enable further research into the health effects of the virus and why some population groups are more likely to become infected than others.

“From April 2020, we also made data from linked health records available to researchers to enable greater understanding of COVID-19. This includes data from COVID-19 diagnostic (antigen) tests, death records, primary care data and hospital inpatient admissions, including critical care, for 400,000 participants living in England, with data from participants living in Wales and Scotland becoming available thereafter. These health record data, together with the extensive data on genomics, lifestyle and biochemical factors already available in the resource, provides a uniquely rich dataset to enable research into the genetic, lifestyle and clinical determinants of COVID-19.

“We are incredibly grateful to all our participants who voluntarily provided - and continue to provide - data and samples to UK Biobank for the purposes of furthering scientific research. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us now, more than ever, the importance of sharing these data with the global research community to enable rapid scientific discoveries to be made.”