Does data and digital technology defeat disease? (S13)

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe, exposing more than ever the fragilities of our economic and health systems. Right from the start of the pandemic, all eyes were on the data. We were all counting infected people, the number of tests, the ventilator stocks and, alas, the increasing fatalities. But was that data reliable and comparable? Did data effectively guide individual and government action? How can we build a better ecosystem for managing data to support the fight against pandemics?

These were the questions raised in the “Unlocking the potential of data in light of early lessons from COVID-19” session during #EHFG2020, organized by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

With the progress in technology over the past 30 years, it seems only logical to leverage the potential of data and digital solutions for public health. However, the fact that we do not have enough integration of the data that is collected proved a challenge during the fight against COVID-19, according to Mike Ryan, Executive Director, World Health Organization Emergencies Programme, who has been at the fore front of the pandemic response. While the WHO and ECDC provided countries with guidance on the type of data to collect, many governments were far behind in having access to reliable and comparable data to feed into global reports.

Naturally, governments turned to digital solutions to collect and analyse data. For example, in February this year when the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Ministry of Health of Romania set up a digital platform to collect data from across the health system – number of ICU beds, number of epidemiologists, number of testing machines and PPE stock. This was an unprecedented endeavor, aimed at offering decision-makers a dashboard to guide the “plane through the storm”. However, the input that the Ministry of Health got was not always comparable and reliable, making it a challenge to take timely decisions.

While we are trying to integrate data across countries, some governments are fighting to collect comparable data from within their system. With COVID-19 data this proved even more to be the case.

Information is meant to be used, but also shared. Collaboration and communication are key components of an effective pandemic response, an insight shared by Andrea Ammon, Director of ECDC. A key element in fighting COVID-19 has been the ability to disseminate information as quickly as possible, and digital tools have been essential in this sense. An example is how in January 2020, the first genome of COVID-19 was placed in an open database. This enabled scientists across the globe to research and develop an understanding of the nature of the virus and possible ways to treat it. Yet another example is the WHO COVID-19 Dashboard, which provides almost a real-time overview of COVID-19 global statistics.

According to Ryan, we have become very good at measuring “the bug”, but still have a long way to go to assess the capacity of systems in dealing with the virus. As he puts it: “We measure the length of the rope, but not how robust the rope is.” Digital technology can support the goal of boosting the resilience of public health systems. Therefore, Europe’s Digital Decade is one of the top priorities of the European Commission, as declared by Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety. The European Commission must encourage an environment where technology works for the people and digital solutions support policy goals. This entails finding innovative solutions to address data coordination challenges.

Without a doubt, the future of health is digital. Now, governments need to jump on the train and contribute to an effective health data strategy for the benefit of their people.

This blog was written by a Young Gasteiner, Alexandra Ioana Tamas.

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