When the 1918 flu pandemic hit, there were no diagnostic flu tests; no vaccines, antibiotics or antiviral drugs. The mere existence of influenza viruses was not yet unknown.
Just over 100 years later, much has changed as we find ourselves in the midst of a new pandemic. Diagnostic tests, while far from flawless, were swift to market, with continuous efforts underway to improve speed and accuracy. As of May 2020, more than 100 COVID-19 candidate vaccines were in development — 10 in clinical evaluation — and a COVID-19 vaccine is on pace to be the fastest-ever to market. Several antiviral drugs, both new and existing, are being developed and evaluated for COVID-19.
In 2020, we not only know the beast we are dealing with, but we are armed with an unprecedented amount of information to combat it. However, widespread data sharing remains a barrier we have yet to fully overcome, and the implications of these limitations are being brought further to light during the current pandemic.
From Anecdotal Evidence to Concrete Data
It is the nature of a novel virus such as SARS-CoV-2 to present a massive learning curve to researchers, healthcare professionals and the general public alike. Even months into the pandemic, experts are still working to understand fundamental aspects of the coronavirus — how exactly it is transmitted, the full range of symptoms, why it presents differently in different people and other key characteristics.
In the early days of the pandemic, much of the evidence that emerged was understandably anecdotal, based largely on frontline experience. But as parts of the U.S. tentatively emerge from what experts warn could just be the first wave, a cohesive picture is needed in order to prepare for subsequent peaks while also mitigating future pandemics. To paint this picture, research, data, experience and practice must transcend organizational boundaries, providing a basis for understanding the implications of the pandemic across physical, social and geographic parameters.
Getting Data Out of Silos and Into Action
In the U.S., there are several federal, state and industry efforts underway to facilitate better data sharing and care coordination during the pandemic. Becker’s Hospital Review outlines 10 of these updates, which include interoperability initiatives, relaxation of certain regulatory rules, big tech participation and government-driven efforts to gather and share data for tracking and resource allocation.
Mechanisms for widespread collaboration and data sharing have become a global priority as well. In a recent policy brief, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs outlined five lessons for harnessing science and technology to solve global challenges such as today’s. Among the lessons was a recommendation to “share knowledge and data to promote collaborative research,” underscored by “a call for stronger international cooperation.”
International research collaborations and similar knowledge-sharing initiatives serve to advance our understanding of global health issues, informing strategies for earlier treatment and prevention, better resource allocation and more effective population health management.
The Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre (DHCRC) is one such initiative. Funded by the Australian government and other public and private sources, the DHCRC aims to develop solutions for urgent healthcare needs through the collective expertise of government, academia and industry. Among its several projects, the DHCRC is currently evaluating ways to leverage its vast breadth of healthcare claims data — furnished by lead corporate partner HMS — to better understand and address the COVID-19 pandemic across populations.
Charting the Future from Lessons Learned
Technology, communication and data sharing have come a long way since the influenza pandemic of 1918. Given this progress, getting the vast amount of data that exists today out of silos and into practical use is vital to tackling the crisis at hand, while doing everything possible to prevent history from repeating itself.
To learn more about the DHCRC’s efforts and how your organization may be able to help advance research on COVID-19 and other urgent health issues, we invite you to access our recent webinar, Harnessing the Power of Data for Research.