Coronavirus in Hungary: Preliminary results of nationwide representative screening are out

2020.05.12. 15:18

At the beginning of May, four Hungarian medical universities have commenced a testing campaign on a representative nationwide sample of approximately 17 000 people. Rector of Semmelweis University Béla Merkely spoke about the preliminary results of the operation named H-UNCOVER at an online press conference on Tuesday.

So far the four universities managed to test 49% of the invited 17 778 - they took 8267 throat swabs for PCR tests that can detect active cases, and only two of them returned positive, while nine of the first 1524 blood samples showed the presence of antibodies, meaning that those patients have already recovered from the disease.

Low number of infections...

Statistically, the preliminary results show that in Hungary's population of 8284 165 people,

  • there could be somewhere between 243 and 7230 active cases,
  • and they estimate that somewhere between 22 399 and 92 624 people have already had the disease.

These preliminary results include those older than 14 who do not live in retirement homes or similar institutes. It can be assessed that

Hungary has had a low number of infections and therefore herd immunity has not set in yet.

Merkely said that the restrictions introduced early on have proven to be effective and the country avoided mass infections, a significant part of the cases are from infected institutions, and he thinks that with proper control, Hungary can start relaxing preventive measures.

...but no herd immunity

On one hand, this is obviously good news, but a warning sign as well, since if there is indeed a second wave in autumn, a very low portion of the Hungarian population would have natural immunity.

Merkely explained that Hungary is really far from having heard immunity, however, he added that so are Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and a score of other countries where the pandemic wreaked more havoc than here, so "Hungary is still better off" with a low number of infections. Only time and researchers will be able to tell why that is though: Hungary was quick to introduce social distancing measures and the population adhered to them well, but there could be other factors at play behind the spread of the virus that we do not yet see.

Virologist Ferenc Jakab added that the total number of actual, PCR-confirmed cases in Italy still only make up 0.3% of the population, which is still quite far from the herd immunity, therefore that could hardly be a solution to this epidemic, but Jakab says we are much better prepared for a possible second wave, provided that even happens.

489 towns and cities involved in tests

The testing campaign was announced on 28 April, the four medical universities aim to find out what portion of the Hungarian population had contracted the disease and therefore had acquired immunity. 

The representative sample compiled by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office included 17 778 people above the age of 14 living in private households (as opposed to retirement homes or other institutions). Subjects are asked to fill a questionnaire before nasopharyngeal swabs and blood samples are taken from them.

The campaign involved test subjects from 489 towns and cities including all districts of Budapest with the help of approximately 1500 doctors, nurses, assistants, undergraduates, and doctoral students. 

14% of subjects refuse to undergo testing

So far the universities managed to test 49.2% of test subjects, but 2607 (14.7%) have refused to undergo testing. Researchers have no information on the whereabouts of 1589 people and they couldn't yet reach 1875 invitees, while 505 people are either dead or abroad, Béla Merkely, the rector of Semmelweis University told the press, adding that for the representative screening to be successful, they will need to have tested 11 200 people by the end of the operation on 14 May. It is encouraging that researchers already received 11 302 filled questionnaires.

The results of the first nationwide representative screening will be released at the end of May. It will be repeated at least twice more, the next round is expected to start in September.

(Cover image: Researcher takes a sample from a subject for coronavirus testing in Székesfehérvár on 12 May 2020. Photo: Tamás Vasvári / MTI)

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