South Africa’s response to omicron shows the value of sharing data – but rich nations can do better

We need global systems of monitoring – earlier interventions could potentially save thousands of lives and tackle the pandemic of disinformation

Nigel Shadbolt
Saturday 11 December 2021 13:11 GMT
U.K.: Omicron Spreading Quickly; Time To Work From Home Again

Even before it had been named, the omicron variant had thrown travel plans into chaos, holiday businesses into panic and politicians into concerned huddles. We all now know the economic and social implications of new variants, not to mention the impact on the NHS and individuals – from workload and bed shortages to long-term health impacts and family bereavements.

Identified first in South Africa, omicron’s fallout naturally hit the whole southern African region hardest, in what may come to be seen as punishment for exemplary genome surveillance.

Instant reactions such as travel restrictions are not hard to understand when the stakes, both economically and health-wise, are so high. Regardless, the speed and openness with which South African scientists acted – sending their concerns to the WHO – should be both praised and emulated. There could not be a better illustration of the value of good data and the power of sharing it.

As co-founder of the Open Data Institute (ODI), I am proud that we are part of the Global Pandemic Data Alliance (GPDA), which has been tasked, by the UK as G7 president, with driving forward safe data access and use for future pandemics. But we must acknowledge that richer nations could do better when it comes to both openness and efficacy.

Alongside Alliance members and I-DAIR, the ODI is looking at how global health data infrastructure and global health data governance can help to predict and deal with the impact of this and the next pandemic. We are finding that there is much excellent work going on in pandemic surveillance. But there are inherent risks with the “me-first” approach of nations or organisations investing in initiatives without enough thought about how these might fit with other efforts around the world.

We need global systems of monitoring that are both widely interoperable and widely accessible, so that all communities can benefit from the data and the insights it yields when analysed. The risk in potentially duplicating surveillance typologies is that it can come at the cost of concentrating on where the gaps in knowledge and ability exist. And a fragmented global landscape of incompatible pandemic surveillance systems will make it harder for those with fewer resources to get the most impact from their investments and efforts.

So what can the G7 and richer nations do? Cooperating around what constitutes quality pandemic preparedness data and safe sharing could mean that variants that impact people differently by gender, disability or existing health conditions could be identified rapidly, potentially saving thousands of lives with earlier interventions. Such a standard could also help support participation from lower-income countries via open-source approaches, giving them fair co-ownership of data insights as well as boosting the global knowledge base.

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Such simple technological solidarity could go some way to mitigate the shared risks in the disparity in the availability of vaccines and treatment between the global north and global south. Open data and open analytical models could also help to address the damaging global pandemic of disinformation that spreads via social media, messaging services and word of mouth. The more that facts and analysis are open, the less spin can be put on them. Fragmentation and gaps allow speculation and misinterpretation to creep in. Misinformation thrives in the vacuum of closed data.

Of course, it is not just vaccine distribution or infection rate data that needs to be shared in order to help deal with this pandemic or the next. Early on in the pandemic we saw the value of mapping and mobility data when it came to understanding the impacts and spread of the disease, as well as how we were taking our allotted daily exercise. We have learned from our own work at the ODI that non-medical data can be as valuable for public health emergencies as that coming from hospitals and vaccine researchers. Indeed, both the public and private sector would do well to open up far more data in the interests of pandemic preparedness.

I am hopeful that the new German government will have open data at the heart of its deliberations as it takes on the G7 presidency at the end of this year. The coalition leaned heavily on the power of digitalisation and modernisation in its appeal to the German people, which bodes well for input on pandemic preparedness. The power of open data is one of the most important and powerful resources we possess as we seek to deal with the impact of this variant, or indeed the next.

Sir Nigel Shadbolt is the principal of Jesus College Oxford and executive chair and co-founder of the Open Data Institute

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