Cross-border collaborations lead to data sharing efforts during COVID-19

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When it comes to tackling a pandemic, global collaboration and data sharing are key, according to speakers at this week’s World Health Summit. 

“There has been a huge fragmentation, a huge multiplication of approaches within countries, between countries,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organization, said during a panel discussion. “In a pandemic, there is no sense in having solutions which apply only within your own national borders. You have to have solutions that work around the world because people are moving all the time.”

Digital tools have come to center stage over the last year. App-based contact tracing tools, telemedicine visits and remote patient monitoring technologies have now become mainstream. 

“Digital solutions, once a tool of the future, have rapidly become essential as the world has fought to understand, manage and overcome the catastrophic impact of COVID-19,” Dr. Stella Kyriakides, commissioner for Health and Food Safety at the European Commission, said. “The pandemic has brought to light the importance of digital technology in medicine and its potential to save lives and support, better, stronger and more equal care systems.”

Today we are seeing cross international border digital initiatives. Kyriakides pointed out a new EU interoperability gateway system that will link up the contact tracing and warning apps of participating EU countries. 

“From now on, an Irish citizen who has installed his home country’s contact tracing app can take a train in Germany and, if afterwards a person who sat close [records] a COVID-19 infection in her German app, will receive a notification as soon as possible of the possible risk of infection even after he is back in Ireland,” Kyriakides said. 

Global data sharing is another hot area for collaboration. According to Swaminathan, at the beginning of the pandemic data sharing allowed more and more researchers to have access to the virus’s whole genome sequences, enabling vaccine development to start. 

“We’ll see the vaccine trial results, but whatever it is, it’s unprecedented to have over 40 vaccines in clinical trials with 10 months of a new virus being discovered,” Swaminathan said. 

While the use cases for digital are increasing, protecting patient privacy should still be front and center. Kyriakides noted that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has created a framework for sharing data ethically and protecting the individual’s privacy. 

“Personal data is not a commodity to be mined like any other for economic gain,” Kyriakides said. “It belongs to the person. This is especially important in the case of sensitive health data. Since the start of the pandemic, Europe has seen a huge growth in the use of digital health tools in heath and care settings to protect and safely connect patients with care professionals. They are a key enabler to allow care and consultations to continue when face-to-face visits are not possible or safe.”

While the coronavirus is still the key focus of healthcare stakeholders worldwide, some are joining forces to look ahead at pandemics of the future. Dame Sally Davies, the special envoy on antimicrobial resistance for the UK government, is working with private, public and academic institutions on the Trinity Challenge, which is aimed at tackling global emergencies of the future. 

“We’ve observed that outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics don’t impact people equally,” Davies said. “The use of data and analytics in global public health, particularly the use of non-health data is not as good as it needs to be and varies across countries. The behavioral understanding of the drivers of outbreaks of epidemics and pandemics is lacking. Infectious disease threats both emerging and re-emerging start and end in our communities.” 

Looking ahead, she said that research and responses to pandemics and other health issues will be a lot more international and tech-driven. 

“We believe that digital collaboration underpins the coordinated systematic approach we need to strengthen health systems and our healthcare,” Davies said.  

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