Future-proofing healthcare resilience: lessons learned from the COVID-19 Infection Survey

Tim Sheppard, SVP & General Manager, Northern Europe, IQVIA, looks back on the journey to deliver robust, accurate data to help government make crucial decisions at a time of crisis
Tim Sheppard


08 Aug 2022

A sense of togetherness and a living proof of the art of the possible are two key elements in the long-lasting legacy of the COVID-19 Infection Survey (CIS), the large-scale health surveillance programme undertaken by the Office for National Statistics together with IQVIA, the Department for Health and Social Care and Oxford University. Twinelle, a field study worker who worked on the CIS programme, described this sentiment well: "Everyone involved wanted to do their part to help the government make the crucial decisions around lockdowns and public safety,” she said at the official opening of the IQVIA UK headquarters. We now know the feeling was felt nationwide.

Equally, the ability to produce data at pace and scale, and deliver it to the government in the same manner, is a legacy with a profound impact on the country. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the collaboration on this survey between government, academia and industry used robust and accurate data to enable rapid and efficient decision-making.

Other meaningful lessons can also be learned from this project – and these are drawn from the very moment the CIS journey started. As the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown in the UK on 23 March 2020, the government had no way of tracking and measuring the impact and the spread of the coronavirus and needed to act quickly. So, the COVID-19 Infection Survey was born. It was an unprecedented challenge for the government, industry and academia, which needed to work together at pace without a roadmap. However, the commitment of each organisation and the expertise we deliver to the programme paved the way.

The CIS is a randomised longitudinal cross-sectional survey of representative households across the UK set up to determine how many people (participants of different age groups and ethnicities) had the infection and how their immune systems reacted to the virus. This crucial information was collected via swabs and blood samples at the homes of participants. As vaccinations were rolled out, the CIS became a tool to monitor their role in affecting the risk of getting the virus in the future.

Moreover, the CIS programme delivered beyond expectations, as Sir Patrick Vallance,  Government Chief Scientific Adviser, explained at the IQVIA UK HQ opening on Wednesday 18th May. He said: “[It] did more than just tell us how many people had the virus. It informed us about viral load, and it allowed genomics to play its part in new variants. We learned how many people had different variants and the impact of vaccination. The survey gave us real-time insight into its impact on ethnic communities, regional variation, spikes between waves, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on inequalities. This was truly a landmark study globally.”

The pace and scale of setting up the survey was and remains phenomenal. It was the first time any organisation had set up a survey of this scale (bar the Census, of course), and there was no blueprint to follow.

Working with the Office for National Statistics, Department of Health and Social Care and Oxford University, IQVIA provided a team of field study workers to the CIS to collect COVID-19 swabs and bloods from across the UK population within days of receiving the brief from government – thousands of swabs and blood samples were collected from people across England within weeks. There have been 11.5 million samples collected in the two-year period to date.

The can-do attitude and exceptional long hours working into the early hours from everyone involved is something to be immensely proud of. The success was achieved through the strong collaboration between the partner organisations.

Equally crucial to the success of the CIS was the motivation of the entire team. Everyone played their part, knowing we were doing something meaningful that would allow the right decisions to be made at the right time and would eventually bring us out of the crisis.

This type of project underpins IQVIA's continued investment in the UK. Before the pandemic, IQVIA had opened its fourth clinical trials centre – the Northern Prime Site – which was followed by a £30 million investment, in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, that saw the company expand its genomic sequencing capabilities in the IQVIA laboratory in Scotland.

As a global business, IQVIA chooses to prioritise the UK for investment because of the talent that comes from the country’s outstanding universities and a government that not only pursues life sciences policies that are improving the UK clinical research and health data ecosystem but also consults with companies like IQVIA during that policy development.

CIS programme: a project with social impact

The CIS’s field study workers are the true heroes of this survey. They surpassed all expectations, visiting participants 361 days of the year, from the Highlands of Scotland to cities and locations across the UK in all weathers. Besides their commitment to the project’s objective, they play their part with the tools and the skills to carry out their jobs. 

IQVIA recruited, onboarded and trained 250 field study workers within days of getting the government brief, and they were ready to do their jobs in adherence to a strict protocol and using the company’s recently built technology. At its peak, CIS had almost 6,000 study workers on the survey and over time has employed many more during difficult times in order to meet the survey requirements.

The CIS project became a source of employment, training and development for many people, and the experience of healthcare professional Twinelle is a testament to that. She joined CIS when the non-emergency work with her previous employer was forced to cease in the lockdown. She was furloughed but seized the opportunity to work as a phlebotomist on the CIS. “11.5 million samples later, we have this efficient project that has been able to provide countless employment opportunities. CIS provided a job for thousands of people at a crucial point in history,” she explained at the IQVIA official UK HQ opening.

Twinelle recognised that healthcare professionals deal with a wide range of patients, most of whom are unwell, frustrated or scared. Working for the CIS, however, was different. She told us that every participant she visited was so friendly and grateful for the opportunity to contribute to such a large database. “Interacting with all of these people was one of my favourite things about working in the field with CIS,” she said.

A data-driven culture

The value of health data is not in the data per se, but in the clinical decision-making it can inform. IQVIA is a human data science organisation and the CIS was human data science at its finest – the data collected by IQVIA undertook informed government public health decision making.

Confidence in the data was critical, and IQVIA was able to mobilise and deliver data within days of being asked to do so. The company's operational expertise, supported by robust privacy-protected data platforms and data scientists, enabled the team to securely record, process and report billions of longitudinal data points every single day relating to over half a million participants.

The CIS has given us the experience and know-how to build a survey that has sustainability at the heart of its design, and as the government continues to rely on ONS’s weekly infection survey data, we need to move forward and look to the future, working together using technology that allows continued participation.

Staying focused on identifying areas for partnership on pandemic preparedness and other vital health surveillance will be necessary. The 100 Days Mission Report aims to reduce future pandemics' impact by making diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines available within 100 days. The legacy of the COVID-19 Infection Survey can be used as the launchpad to make this a reality. This sentiment was shared by Sir Patrick at the IQVIA UK HQ opening when he said: “As a mission, this is the right thing to do, through surveillance, genomics and therapeutic interventions.”



IQVIA is a human data sciences company and leading global provider of advanced analytics, technology solutions, and clinical research services to the life sciences industry. The company creates intelligent connections across all aspects of healthcare through its analytics, transformative technology, big data resources and extensive domain expertise.


IQVIA Connected Intelligence™ delivers powerful insights with speed and agility — enabling customers to accelerate the clinical development and commercialization of innovative medical treatments that improve healthcare outcomes for patients. With approximately 79,000 employees, IQVIA conducts operations in more than 100 countries. To learn more, visit www.iqvia.com

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