University of Tartu launches coronavirus prevalence study

The main building at the University of Tartu (TÜ).
The main building at the University of Tartu (TÜ). Source: Andres Tennus/University of Tartu

Researchers at the University of Tartu have started a three-month study on the prevalence of coronavirus in Estonia among both symptomatic and asymptomatic people. At least 16,000 residents will be interviewed and invited to be tested for coronavirus.

The study launched on Thursday and will see 2,000-4,000 people interviewed and tested each week for eight weeks. Social and market research company AS Emor will send the invitation and questionnaire to selected participants, who have been selected at random, electronically.

Phone interviews will be carried out with elderly people who cannot fill in an electronic questionnaire. Participation in the survey is voluntary for all people who receive the invitation and people may withdraw from the survey at any time.

The electronic questionnaire should be completed in Estonian or Russian within five days. The participant will then receive a call from the SYNLAB and Medicum joint testing call centre to agree a time when they can visit a public testing site by car.

Testing by a nasopharyngeal swab through an open car window is carried out in Tallinn, Tartu, Narva, Pärnu, Viljandi, Rakvere, Kohtla-Järve, Haapsalu, Paide, Jõgeva, Kuressaare and Kärdla.

For people with special needs or for those who are unable to drive to the testing site by car, the private medical companies will organise testing for coronavirus at home. SYNLAB analyses the samples for coronavirus RNA, indicating an active infection.

CEO of SYNLAB Estonia Rainar Aamisepp added that an average of 1,000–1,500 coronavirus samples are analysed at their laboratories every day, while their maximum capacity is 3,000 samples.

"Thanks to the sufficient reserve of capacity we can partner with the University of Tartu in the project we consider very important. It helps us to know more about the coronavirus and the spread of the disease it causes, to keep the spread under control and thus better plan our gradual return to normal life," explained Aamisepp.

All infected persons identified during the study will be monitored and interviewed weekly until the disease subsides. If the infected person is asymptomatic, the person will be interviewed for two weeks.

The head of the study, Head of the Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health, Professor Ruth Kalda said that the study will involve a random selection of men and women from different age groups from different counties based on the distribution of Estonian population.

"Thus, the respondents will form a small model of the Estonian society. Based on the results of the study, we can draw conclusions on the actual spread of coronavirus in different population groups and provide the government with weekly evidence-based information for modifying the measures of the emergency situation," Kalda added.

In addition to data on the actual prevalence of the virus, the study will give insight into the changes in the number and percentage of the infected and the factors these numbers are connected to.

Also, by comparing the results of the interviews and testing, the study will reveal the main background characteristics and risk factors of infection (e.g. concomitant diseases, size of household, socioeconomic status, types of contact, etc.) and how they relate to prevalence.

By monitoring both symptomatic and asymptomatic infected persons, we can get information on the course of the infection and the disease and how this relates to the background characteristics and risk factors of the person.

University of Tartu launches coronavirus prevelance study. Source: University of Tartu.

University of Tartu invites people to take part in online coronavirus study

The university also has an anonymous questionnaire which can be filled in in English, Russian or Estonian here. The study aims to model the geographical spread of the virus.

Jaak Vilo, head of the ÜT Institute of Computer Science, said that the purpose of the project is to create a database required for mapping and modelling the spread of the COVID-19 disease which would allow to break down infections by age, occupation and location, changes over time and the differences between cases and the general population.

Vilo said in a live broadcast of the daily newspaper Postimees that the project aims to map out the "submerged part of the COVID-19 iceberg", referring to the spread of the virus among people to whom coronavirus tests are currently unavailable.

"The way for doing it right now is through an anonymous online questionnaire. We invite people who have reason to believe they have come into contact with a COVID-19 carrier to write down all of their risk factors -- chronic diseases, virus symptoms and so on. That will allow us to find links between the course and severity of the illness and various determinants," he said.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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