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New technology to help identify people at high risk from COVID-19

Published: 16 February 2021

A new technology has been introduced in England to help clinicians identify adults with multiple risk factors that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The technology analyses a combination of risk factors recorded on medical records to assess whether somebody may be more vulnerable than was previously understood, helping clinicians provide vaccination more quickly to them and ensuring patients can benefit from additional advice and support.

Up to 1.7 million patients have been identified at high risk from COVID-19. More than 800,000 adults between 19 and 69 years will now be prioritised for vaccination (as those within the vulnerable group who are over 70 will have already been invited for vaccination).

Research commissioned by England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and funded by the NIHR found that there are several health and personal factors - such as age, ethnicity and BMI, as well as certain medical conditions and treatments - that, when combined, could mean someone is at a higher risk from COVID-19.

The University of Oxford turned their research into a risk prediction model called QCovid®, which has been independently validated by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The model is thought to be the only COVID-19 risk prediction model in the world to meet the highest standards of evidence and assurance.

NHS Digital used the University of Oxford’s model to develop a population risk assessment. The risk assessment uses the model to predict on a whole population basis whether adults with a combination of risk factors may be at more serious risk from COVID-19, enabling them to be flagged to clinicians for priority access to vaccination, alongside appropriate advice and support. These individuals will be added to the Shielded Patient List on a precautionary basis and to enable rapid vaccination.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said: “For the first time, we are able to go even further in protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.

“This new model is a tribute to our health and technology researchers. The model’s data-driven approach to medical risk assessment will help the NHS identify further individuals who may be at high risk from COVID-19 due to a combination of personal and health factors.

“This action ensures those most vulnerable to COVID-19 can benefit from both the protection that vaccines provide, and from enhanced advice, including shielding and support, if they choose it.”

Lead researcher Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, a general practitioner and Professor of Clinical Epidemiology and General Practice at University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, said: “The QCovid® model, which has been developed using anonymised data from more than 8 million adults, provides nuanced assessment of risk by taking into account a number of different factors that are cumulatively used to estimate risk including ethnicity.

“I’m delighted that less than a year after being funded by the NIHR, the model is now being used to help protect people at most risk from COVID-19.”

The research to develop and validate the model is published in the British Medical Journal, along with the underlying model, for transparency. Additional code underpinning the QCovid® model will be made available openly by the University of Oxford within a month. The model can be updated as scientific understanding of the virus develops.

Read more about the population risk assessment.

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