Using Data to Combat COVID-19

11 min read

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Data plays a central role in the global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic through virus detection, mitigation of spread, treatments, and vaccines. Public policy responses and private sector initiatives are equally informed by and reliant on data analytics. Access to data in real-time is vital to understanding the epidemiology of the virus, calibrating public policy countermeasures such as social distancing and contact-tracing, and accelerating research and development on diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. The spread of the virus has spurred a fundamental reordering of priorities and marshalling of resources across the public and private sectors, including the biopharmaceutical industry. Industry collaboration and public-private partnerships depend on data analytics and data sharing. At the same time, however, several international and national measures may impede access to data necessary to fight the virus.

The Fundamental Role of Data in Combating the Virus

Governments, private companies and organizations worldwide are devoting vast resources to mitigate the public health impact of COVID-19. Data analytics drive all aspects of the response—at the international, regional, national, and local levels—in terms of the epidemiology, public policy measures, and biopharmaceutical research and development.

Epidemiology and demographics

Since January 21, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued daily reports, including updated country-by-country case/death counts, which rely on upward reporting of data from municipalities around the world.1 Beyond daily country-level data, understanding the epidemiological profile of the virus requires real-time, hyper-local infection data, so as to identify emerging "clusters." In this regard, China has introduced artificial intelligence (AI)-powered temperature screening systems in railway stations and other high-traffic areas.2 In another example, the Taiwanese government compared its national health insurance database with customs databases to identify citizens who had traveled to COVID-19 hotspots and therefore may have contracted the virus.3 Some companies also are working to compile health data directly from individuals via AI-powered, consumer-facing health information products.

Public policy countermeasures

Policymakers around the world have referred to health and behavioral data to determine their approach to 'flattening the curve'5 Data analytics and AI tools inform policy measures that limit travel, restrict citizens' movement, impose quarantines or self-isolation requirements, and shut down broad swaths of the economy. Data show such measures are effective in slowing the rate of COVID-19 transmission. For example, a US company that produces internet-connected thermometers compiled user data in assessing the spread of COVID-19.6

Governments are also using citizens' health, location, and other data in order to track the spread of the virus and isolate infected or at-risk individuals. This "contact-tracing" approach has been used in places such as Singapore, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, where the governments use smartphone data to track the location and contacts of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 or to enforce quarantine orders.7

The deployment and efficacy of these and other public policy countermeasures depend on the availability of data. Public and private sector platforms have recently emerged to host and analyze data regarding new case/death rates, hospital bed availability, electricity load, and weather patterns.8

Research and development

Leveraging data analytics and enabling collaborative research are critical to expediting the discovery and development of new diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines. In the United States, point-of-care diagnostic tests have been developed that are capable of delivering positive results in as little as five minutes and negative results in 13 minutes.9 Clinical research on potential treatments and vaccines also has accelerated since the initial release of the COVID-19 genome sequence in mid-January 2020. This research activity – including 361 registered trials on coronaviruses between January 1 and mid-March 2020, compared to 14 in the preceding 12 years – requires both increased funding and the availability of the genome sequence and other data.10

New platforms and methods are emerging for the purpose of sharing research on COVID-19. For example, a consortium of US companies and institutions released the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, a collection of 33,000 full-text, machine-readable research articles relevant to COVID-19.11 Recognizing the importance of data, the US government issued "a call to action to the Nation's artificial intelligence experts to develop new text and data-mining techniques that can help the science community answer high-priority scientific questions related to COVID-19."12

New drug development depends on clinical trials, which can be an inherently lengthy process. The sharing of data can make the process faster. At least two vaccines are currently in phase-1 clinical trials, with dozens more in preclinical development.13 The free flow of data facilitates local and remote monitoring of multiple clinical trial sites, with real-time data access (including through use of wearables), which allows researchers to adapt approaches on an ongoing basis.14 In cases where data are generated across multiple clinical trial sites, or where companies collaborate with external partners, cross-border data flows may be critical.

Drawing upon data from other diseases can also assist researchers in assessing whether existing treatments may be effective for COVID-19, or for developing new molecules. For example, an AI model developed in the UK discovered that a rheumatoid arthritis drug may be effective against COVID-19, and a Hong Kong-based company reported that its AI system designed six new molecules that could halt viral replication.15

Industry Priorities, Cooperation, and Data Sharing

COVID-19 has dramatically altered company priorities and fostered increased cooperation and data sharing within the biopharmaceutical industry. The common goal is to eradicate the virus. Among the many shared initiatives, the industry has committed to screening global libraries of medicines to identify potential treatments and to sharing the learnings from clinical trials in real time with governments and other companies.16 In addition, top R&D, regulatory, and manufacturing executives from pharmaceutical companies have been in regular contact to determine a whole-of-industry response to the pandemic.17 This includes "creat[ing] a clearing house of ideas for testing of molecules and vaccines, with working groups to vet the ideas and expedite testing on the most promising via clinical or preclinical testing."18 Separately, a consortium of pharmaceutical companies and non-profits has been formed to coordinate on development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, including by sharing their proprietary libraries of molecular compounds.19

Public-Private Partnerships to Leverage Data

Several new and existing public-private partnerships have been mobilized to leverage data and resources in response to the spread of COVID-19. For example, the US government and leading technology companies have formed a "COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium" that will provide COVID-19 researchers "worldwide" with access to high-performance computing resources capable of performing "massive numbers of calculations related to bioinformatics, epidemiology, and molecular modeling[.]"20 The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are also leveraging an existing partnership with Carnegie Mellon University that will use machine-learning algorithms and data from diverse sources to better forecast the spread of COVID-19.21 In the UK, the International Severe Acute Respiratory and emerging Infections Consortium (ISARIC) at Oxford University has launched a global data-sharing initiative, the Novel Coronavirus (NCoV) Data Platform (NCoVDP), which aims to serve as a "standardised, secure, curated and legally compliant data repository" on COVID-19.22

International and National Measures Affecting Cross-Border Data Flows

Finally, certain international and national measures could impede certain data collection, sharing, and processing efforts necessary for the response to COVID-19. For example, the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) places significant limitations on the lawful collection and processing of EU citizens' personal data, whether such activities take place within the EU or elsewhere.23 Many additional countries maintain similar laws or regulations aimed at protecting the privacy of citizens' personal data. Several national data protection and privacy authorities have issued guidance on the interaction between their privacy-related laws and regulations and the collection, processing, and sharing of data in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but these statements generally have emphasized flexibilities within existing legal and regulatory frameworks (e.g., for public health activities) while maintaining that applicable rules governing the treatment of personal data must continue to be followed.24

Many countries also maintain laws or regulations that limit cross-border data flows, including through data localization requirements. For example, Australia's Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records Act generally prohibits the storage or processing of electronic health records outside of Australian territory, and several other countries have imposed similar requirements in the health sector.25 Several other countries have been cited as restricting cross-border data flows more broadly, and in ways that appear linked to industrial policy objectives. For example, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) has cited China's 2016 Cybersecurity Law and its implementing regulations as providing for "sweeping restrictions on cross-border data transfers and broad-based data localization mandates."26 USTR also has recently identified India, Russia, Turkey, and Vietnam as maintaining or contemplating broad restrictions on the cross-border transfer of personal and other data.27 Impediments to the ability to access data across borders could have implications for efforts to respond to COVID-19.

1 See, e.g., World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 71 (March 31, 2020), available at
2 Georgios Petropoulos, Bruegel, "Artificial intelligence in the fight against COVID-19" (March 23, 2020), available at
3 Marcello Ienca and Effy Vayena, Nature Medicine, "On the responsible use of digital data to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic" (March 27, 2020), available at
4 See, e.g., Project Baseline by Verily, Baseline COVID-19 testing program, available at
5 See, e.g., Chandelis Duster, CNN, "Fauci says Trump 'got it right away' on data that suggested need to extend social distancing guidelines" (March 30, 2020), available at
6 See Kinsa Insights, "US Health Weather Map," available at
7 J. Scott Marcus, Bruegel, "Big data versus COVID-19: opportunities and privacy challenges" (March 23, 2020), available at
8 Larry Dignan, ZDNet, "As COVID-19 data sets become more accessible, novel coronavirus pandemic may be most visualized ever," (April 1, 2020), available at
9 Grens, Kerry. "FDA Gives Abbott Emergency Use of Five-Minute Coronavirus Test." The Scientist Magazine®, 30 Mar. 2020,
10 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, "Beyond Containment: Health Systems Responses To COVID-19 in the OECD" at 17 (March 25, 2020), available at ud5comtf84&Title=Beyond%20Containment:Health%20systems%20responses%20to%20COVID19%20in%20the%20OECD.
11 Semantic Scholar, "COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19)," available at
12 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, "Call to Action to the Tech Community on New Machine Readable COVID-19 Dataset" (March 16, 2020), available at
13 Yahoo! Finance, "All the COVID-19 vaccines and treatments currently in clinical trials" (April 2, 2020), available at
14 See McKinsey & Company, Digital R&D: The Next Frontier for Biopharmaceuticals (2017), at 5, 79 ("Next generation remote monitoring of sites, enabled by fluid, real-time data access, could improve management and responses to issues that arise in trials").
15 OECD, "Beyond Containment: Health Systems Responses To COVID-19 in the OECD" at 19.
16 Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, "Our Commitment to Beat Coronavirus."
17 C. Simone Fishburn, Biocentury, "Pharmas on one page with action plan to solve COVID-19 together" (March 25, 2020), available at
18 C. Simone Fishburn, Biocentury, "Pharmas on one page with action plan to solve COVID-19 together" (March 25, 2020).
19 Novartis, "Novartis and life sciences companies commit expertise and assets to the fight against COVID-19 pandemic alongside Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation" (March 26, 2020), available at
20 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, "White House Announces New Partnership to Unleash U.S. Supercomputing Resources to Fight COVID-19" (March 23, 2020), available at\briefingsstatements\white-house-announces-new-partnership-unleash-u-s-supercomputing-resources-fight-covid-19
21 Hao, Karen, MIT Technology Review, "This Is How the CDC Is Trying to Forecast Coronavirus's Spread" (March 16, 2020), available at
22 ISARIC is funded by Wellcome Trust, the UK Department for International Development, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. University of Oxford, "£4.5 Million Award for Clinical Research Consortium to Tackle the Global Threat of Epidemic Infectious Diseases" (Feb. 8, 2019), available at
23 Regulation (EU) 2016/679.
24 See, e.g., European Data Protection Board, "Statement on the Processing of Personal Data in the Context of the COVID-19 Outbreak" (March 20, 2020), available at
25 Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records Act 2012 (No. 63, 2012), Article 77. See also Cory, Nigel, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation "Cross-Border Data Flows: Where Are the Barriers, and What Do They Cost?" (May 1, 2017), available at
26 "FACT SHEET ON THE 2020 NATIONAL TRADE ESTIMATE: Strong, Binding Rules to Advance Digital Trade." United States Trade Representative, 31 Mar. 2020,
27 Ibid.

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