Data & Digital – The Global Response to Coronavirus

How can data and digital help in global health emergencies like the latest outbreak of coronavirus?

Authors: Camilla Göth
  • Reading time: 4 min.
  • Posted on: January 24, 2020

Timely and accurate information to assess the outbreak of the coronavirus is, and will continue to be, key to control the response. As we anticipate the imminent announcement from the World Health organization, WHO, of a global emergency, Planning Lead, Camilla Göth, took a look at the the role of data and digital in the global response. 

Digital solutions have the potential to play a huge role, but digitisation alone will not solve the problem. The tools and technologies are available, but what systems and safeguards are in place to support how we use them during outbreaks? 

The Artificial Intelligence-Driven algorithm BlueDot collects information from foreign-language news reports, animal and plant disease networks and air ticketing data and provides their customers with warnings of potential outbreaks and their locations. BlueDot warned their clients on 31 December about a potential outbreak in Wuhan. The WHO notified the public on 9 January.

The changing nature of societies are giving us new challenges, but this also presents new opportunities to respond effectively.

In 1918, the Spanish flu hit the world and took about 50 million lives at a time when  commercial plane travel was relatively non-existent. The Spanish flu became global in 3 years and was traced as far as Alaska and the Pacifics.

In the year of 2020, we expect to see 40.3 million flights. When a new virus is discovered, there’s a risk it will travel faster and further than ever before. This is why we need to use the available technologies to effectively track and monitor the spread of viruses, such as the coronavirus, from the moment of discovery.

Creating health data governance that supports data rights.

Low and middle income countries are increasingly transitioning from paper-based health systems to digital ones. To have digital systems in place is crucial for global health security as it supports the global community to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks more efficiently and effectively. 

Digital tools, such as the outbreak investigation tool Go.Data and the Epidemic Intelligence from Open Sources, are available to use, and focus need to be on developing a strong global health governance framework and support global policy to access the health data. There is also great potential in using the data collected through smart watches like Fitbit, to help predict outbreaks. To complicate things a little further, this needs to be developed and implemented with data rights in mind. 

With companies, like Facebook and Apple, increasingly being criticised for misusing our data, we need to be ensured that our sensitive health data will be used responsibly, including that we have access to our individual health data at any time.

WHO digital health strategy lacks emergency lens

The World Health Organisation, WHO, is currently working on a digital health strategy, aimed to launch this year. A draft was released on 6th of January and the focus on the use of data in health emergencies is very limited. It recognises that information and communication technologies will be an essential enabling factor towards ensuring that 1 billion more people are better protected from health emergencies, but doesn’t go further than this.

No concrete actions are proposed in relation to data governance importance in outbreaks and with WHO being the most important global convener and catalyst on health topics, this is a missed opportunity.

Following the news about China’s efforts to isolate the virus in the coming days will be crucial, as will the response from the WHO and member states A debate must now be called on how health data governance and policy, together with digital tools, can support the international response.

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