The coronavirus may have already infected half of the population in the UK, according to researchers at the University of Oxford.
The new model suggests the coronavirus was circulating in the UK by mid-January, approximately two weeks before the first reported case and a month before the first death.
The study into the infection rate was led by Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford.
If the results are confirmed it suggests fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment, and the vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all.
The findings came after the official death toll jumped a record 87 in one day to 422, and confirmed cases passed 8,000.
Speaking to the Financial Times, who first reported on the study, Professor Gupta said testing was needed to assess what stage of the epidemic the UK is at now. The Oxford researchers are working with colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge and Kent to start antibody testing on the general population as soon as possible.
Oxford’s modelling presents a very different view to Imperial College London studies, which has strongly influenced the government’s approach to tackling the outbreak.
“I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” Gupta told the FT.
If the Oxford University model is accurate, the results would mean the country has already acquired “herd immunity” through the unrecognised spread of Covid-19.
Herd immunity is the idea that coronavirus will stop spreading when enough of the population have become resistant after being infected. The government abandoned its unofficial herd immunity strategy after its scientific advisers said it would overwhelm the NHS.