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REACT-1 study round 14: High and increasing prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection among school-aged children during September 2021 and vaccine effectiveness against infection in England

By Marc Chadeau-Hyam, Haowei Wang, Oliver Eales, David J. Haw, Barbara Bodinier, Matthew Whitaker, Caroline E. Walters, Kylie E. C. Ainslie, Christina J Atchison, Claudio Fronterre, Peter J Diggle, Andrew Page, Alex Trotter, Deborah Ashby, Wendy Barclay, Graham P Taylor, Graham Cooke, Helen Ward, Ara Darzi, Steven Riley, Christl Donnelly, Paul Elliott

Posted 22 Oct 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.10.14.21264965

Background: England experienced a third wave of the COVID-19 epidemic from end May 2021 coinciding with the rapid spread of Delta variant. Since then, the population eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 has been extended to include all 12-15-year-olds, and a booster programme has been initiated among adults aged 50 years and over, health care and care home workers, and immunocompromised people. Meanwhile, schoolchildren have returned to school often with few COVID-19-related precautions in place. Methods: In the REal-time Assessment of Community Transmission-1 (REACT-1) study, throat and nose swabs were sent to non-overlapping random samples of the population aged 5 years and over in England. We analysed prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) swab-positivity data from REACT-1 round 14 (between 9 and 27 September 2021). We combined results for round 14 with round 13 (between 24 June and 12 July 2021) and estimated vaccine effectiveness and prevalence of swab-positivity among double-vaccinated individuals. Unlike all previous rounds, in round 14, we switched from dry swabs transported by courier on a cold chain to wet swabs using saline. Also, at random, 50% of swabs (not chilled until they reached the depot) were transported by courier and 50% were sent through the priority COVID-19 postal service. Results: We observed stable or rising prevalence (with an R of 1.03 (0.94, 1.14) overall) during round 14 with a weighted prevalence of 0.83% (0.76%, 0.89%). The highest weighted prevalence was found in children aged 5 to 12 years at 2.32% (1.96%, 2.73%) and 13 to 17 years at 2.55% (2.11%, 3.08%). All positive virus samples analysed correspond to the Delta variant or sub-lineages of Delta with one instance of the E484K escape mutation detected. The epidemic was growing in those aged 17 years and under with an R of 1.18 (1.03, 1.34), but decreasing in those aged 18 to 54 years with an R of 0.81 (0.68, 0.97). For all participants and all vaccines combined, vaccine effectiveness against infection (rounds 13 and 14 combined) was estimated to be 62.8% (49.3%, 72.7%) after two doses compared to unvaccinated people when adjusted for round, age, sex, index of multiple deprivation, region and ethnicity; the adjusted estimate was 44.8% (22.5%, 60.7%) for AstraZeneca and 71.3% (56.6%, 81.0%) for Pfizer-BioNTech, and for all vaccines combined it was 66.4% (49.6%, 77.6%) against symptomatic infection (one or more of 26 surveyed symptoms in month prior). Across rounds 13 and 14, weighted prevalence of swab-positivity was 0.55% (0.50%, 0.61%) for those who received their second dose 3-6 months before their swab compared to 0.35% (0.31%, 0.40%) for those whose second dose was within 3 months of their swab. However, the prevalence was lower in those with one or two doses of vaccine than in unvaccinated individuals at 1.76% (1.60%, 1.95%). In round 14, age group, region, key worker status, and household size jointly contributed to the risk of higher prevalence of swab-positivity. Discussion: In September 2021 infections were increasing exponentially in the 5-to-17-year age group coinciding with the start of the autumn school term in England. Relatively few schoolchildren aged 5 to 17 years have been vaccinated in the UK though single doses are now being offered to those aged 12 years and over. In adults, the higher prevalence of swab-positivity following two doses of vaccine within 3 to 6 months supports the use of a booster vaccine. It is important that the vaccination programme maintains high coverage and reaches children and unvaccinated or partially vaccinated adults to reduce transmission and associated disruptions to work and education.

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