The current pandemic has highlighted the power of digital technologies to help detect, track and treat Covid-19. Unfortunately, the crisis has also shed light on some of the challenges that need to be overcome in order to maximise the positive impact that these technologies can have on Europe’s response and recovery from Covid-19.
In the science arena, digital technologies are allowing research on Covid-19 to be carried out online and across different countries, but data sharing is proving to be an issue due to rules in some member states on the use of health data.
Ray Pinto, Digital Transformation Policy Director for DIGITALEUROPE : “Data and AI algorithms are accelerating the identification of candidate vaccines (…) A couple of institutions have been able to quickly aggregate data, and have made it accessible, helping to monitor and track the disease”. “Rules in some member states are creating huge obstacles (…) Loopholes that allow states to restrict data within their national boundaries need to be overcome quickly in order to deal with this crisis”. Read Ray Pinto’s full interview
EU funding initiatives on digital health
To overcome some of these barriers the EU Commission is using the Digital Europe Programme (DEP) funds to build the EU’s digital capacities and facilitate the use of digital technologies by European citizens and businesses; and investing heavily in multiple healthcare and research initiatives that allow scientists to share and use data related to the new coronavirus in order to devise measures that reduce transmission and develop treatments and vaccines.
These investments put digital transformation at the core of the EU’s preparedness for future infectious disease outbreaks and of its economic recovery as lockdowns ease. “The pandemic has been a real wake-up call on what we need to do in the longer term to make sure that Europe is resilient and ready for the next waves,” Pinto comments.
Some of the recently launched digital technology and data-driven initiatives to tackle Covid-19 are the European Reference Networks (ERN)’s COVID-19 Clinical Management Support System, a web conferencing system that allows clinicians across the EU and EEA to exchange knowledge and experience of treating Covid-19 patients, and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health Network’s Rapid Response initiative, which is funding various digital healthcare and telemedicine projects.
The ‘Proposal for a Regulation establishing the EU4Health programme’, is part of the long-term EU budget plan presented by the European Commission last May, 28th. The plan includes Next Generation EU, an emergency temporary instrument, to help recover from the coronavirus pandemic:
Specific objective No 4: Strengthen the effectiveness, accessibility, sustainability and resilience of health systems, including by supporting digital transformation, the uptake of digital tools and services, systemic reforms, implementation of new care models and universal health coverage, and address inequalities in health.
The importance of data sharing for health
Tackling Covid-19 requires many different kinds of data. While the genetic material of the virus from samples collected all over the world will help scientists to monitor the outbreak and understand how the virus is evolving, determining the structure of viral proteins and their function can point the way to new treatment targets. Furthermore, clinical and environmental data can help to understand how the virus operates and patients’ immune response to it.
To help bring these data together, the European Commission in collaboration with the European Bioinformatics Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL-EBI), ELIXIR and the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC), launched the Covid-19 Data Platform, which allows researchers all over the world to upload, share and access virus-related data. The platform includes DNA sequences, protein structures, data from pre-clinical research and clinical trials, as well as epidemiological data.
In the latest H2020 call for research on epidemic intelligence, two large projects focusing on data mining for epidemic modelling and diagnosis of infection were funded: MOOD (MOnitoring Outbreak events for Disease surveillance in a data science context) and VEO (Versatile Emerging infectious disease Observatory).
MOOD focuses on the use of big data to improve the surveillance of Covid-19 and other emerging infectious diseases.
Renaud Lancelot, Deputy Director of CIRAD, and the project’s scientific coordinator: “Our multidisciplinary team brings together genomic data, text mining and environmental data, to co-construct outputs that meet the needs of public health agencies, in terms of epidemic intelligence, and that are useful for triggering appropriate control measures”. Read Renaud Lancelot’s full interview
By working directly with public health agencies, MOOD’s networks of data experts aim to help decision makers react faster, and appropriately, to emerging diseases. “Enhancing the communication between complementary networks of experts will ensure everyone benefits from the data and enable faster detection of and faster reaction to emerging diseases,” Lancelot says.
In recognition that policy makers, care providers and other employers urgently need practical evidence-based guidelines to deal with problems resulting from current containment and mitigation measures to control Covid-19, on the 19th of May, the European Commission launched a new rapid Horizon 2020 call. This call focuses on improving understanding of the behavioural and socio-economic impacts of the epidemic and has allocated €56 million to projects that advance digital tools and artificial intelligence analytics for Covid-19 surveillance. The deadline for submission of proposals is on the 11th June 2020.
Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has increased public awareness of data-driven research and the role of digital technologies in our lives and livelihoods. By supporting coordinated efforts to overcome some of the barriers that are preventing citizens from reaping the benefits of data sharing and digitalisation, the EU stands to emerge stronger and better prepared for future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
• Further information on the European Research Area’s Action Plan against Covid-19
• EU4Health Programme
• European Parliament – Health threats: boosting EU readiness and crisis management
• A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Ray Pinto on Europe’s digital response to Covid-19
• A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Dr Renaud Lancelot on data-driven solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic
• EU project : MOOD