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Sharing global health and research data

Eline Lincklaen Arriëns

The role of data sharing in COVID-19 research

This week, the world is celebrating the announcement of not one, but two COVID-19 vaccines. This gives many people hope for some sense of ‘normalcy’ again in the near future. In celebrating these vaccines and the prospect of going back to work, shops opening and travelling again, I wanted to think and reflect about what we can learn from this strange year.

Following the epic spread of the pandemic since the first reported case in December 2019 in Wuhan City, China, COVID-19 needs no introduction. The pandemic has taken the world by storm and has been repeatedly discussed by various institutions, government bodies, and businesses throughout the world. Daily. What I want to focus on in this piece is the role of data exchange in COVID-19 research and how it potentially contributed to the two, and potentially more, vaccines. I won’t touch on the vaccines themselves in this piece, there is and will continue to be enough news about that in the coming weeks.

To the point, we know that quite a bit has been done on this front throughout 2020.

At a national level in Europe for example, hospitals have been sharing data between one another and with the national government to monitor statistics such as the spread and causalities of the virus1. On the EU front, since 2 April 2020 the European Parliament has been looking for ways in which data sharing can support research and if the EU Member States’ commitments to transparency and data sharing hinders or supports their national strategies2. For an international and more publicised example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been facilitating information sharing  and actively promoting the exchange of data to support research and action in combating the disease’s spread (i.e. their Coronavirus pandemic section that informs and facilitates initiatives and regulations on COVID-19 by keeping users informed). Another example of the WHO facilitating data exchange is the “Solidarity Trial”, launched 27 March 2020 – an initiative aiming to enable nations across the world to share information on COVID-19, including data on experimental therapies and research3. This was later complemented by “Solidarity II”, a global project led by the WHO to promote the implementation of serological surveys of COVID-19 thereby providing a collaborative environment between public health agencies and academic institutions.

And, so what? Have these initiatives actually helped?

Before the virus spread, we had already discussed how data sharing can accelerate research and its potential benefits to the wider community at a local, regional, and national level4. For a more quantitative perspective on this, we may need to wait a bit longer for the smoke to clear and for more research around the subject to be shared and published. What I can comfortably say after reflection is that COVID-19 has accelerated a drive (and privacy concerns) to share data across the border in areas such as health and logistics 5,6. In 2020, we have seen a rise of data sharing initiatives centred around COVID-19 in continents such as Europe7 and Asia. 8. I’m curious to see our new ‘normal’ as these vaccines role out and to discover if and how data sharing facilitated research around COVID-19 and to the vaccine.

Interested in the topic and want to discuss it further? Share your thoughts in the General SCDS forum!


Sharing global health and research data
Image credit:
(c) 2020, Fernando Zhiminaicela

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