A new multi-million pound research project will help scientists across the UK access the data they need more easily to help develop potential therapies and treatments for COVID-19.
Experts from the Universities of Dundee, Edinburgh and Nottingham, along with Public Health England, will build the infrastructure for CO-CONNECT, a £4million UK-wide initiative to support research into the COVID-19 antibody response, by connecting COVID-19 data derived from patient blood samples.
The project has been funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), through the UKRI-NIHR COVID-19 Rapid Response Rolling Call.
The aim of CO-CONNECT is to build the data infrastructure to ensure researchers have the necessary information to answer fundamental questions around how immunity may help prevent future spread of the virus in schools and workplaces, how best to treat it in hospitals, and generally how long immunity lasts.
The current pandemic has caused over a million deaths globally, severely strained health systems and damaged economies across the world. There is currently limited evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection and if so, how long that lasts.
Understanding who is immune, and to what level, is vital to protect vulnerable individuals, to safely scale back population-based interventions and for managing disease transmission.
The data, which can help to answer these key questions, has been collected across the UK by a range of research groups and within clinical primary (e.g. GP surgeries) and secondary care settings (e.g. Hospitals).
As this is a new disease, the standards for antibody data capture are still new, so some of the details needed to answer key questions about the virus is not being gathered in a standard way that allows re-use for a range of research questions.
The fragmented landscape of data means that it can be challenging for public health groups and researchers to find and access the high-quality data they need at pace.
This new 18-month project aims to ensure the same standards are applied to all data to make it comparable and usable in research. It will provide researchers with a streamlined, automated infrastructure to assist with work into developing potential therapies and treatments for the disease.
The system will also protect patient confidentiality and data security, supporting federated anonymised data analysis. Patient and public support is key and there is strong patient and public representation on the CO-CONNECT leadership team.
Professor Emily Jefferson, Professor of Health Data Science at the University of Dundee, said, “We are delighted to be working with leading experts at Nottingham and Edinburgh on the CO-CONNECT platform. This is a fantastic project, which will deliver new capabilities across the country to help us in our fight against COVID-19.”
Professor Aziz Sheikh, Director of BREATHE and of the Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh, said, “Large datasets are transforming healthcare research and initiatives like CO-CONNECT will be key to accelerating research into COVID-19 antibodies. This UK-wide initiative brings together data custodians and experts with a wealth of experience in health data management who will collaborate to develop new insights into COVID-19 and speed up the search for treatments that are so badly needed.”
The CO-CONNECT project is an exemplary demonstration of the cross-sector work being co-ordinated by HDR UK, the UK’s national institute for health data science. As a member of the UK Health Data Research Alliance, the University of Nottingham is one of a number of leading healthcare and research organisations that have come together as the Alliance to establish best practice for the ethical use of UK health data for research at scale. Once available, data from CO-CONNECT will be directly integrated into HDR UK’s Innovation Gateway and available to the UK research community, thus allowing it to be used more widely to support further research projects; and generate more insights that will improve healthcare.
Philip Quinlan, Head of Digital Research Service at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Director in HDR UK, said, “We are really excited to be bringing together the best of the UK’s data assets into an accessible format. It will ensure leading researchers have access to the latest data and at the scale required to give definitive answers to some of the most significant questions that require an answer. We are really thankful to all the leading organisations that have come together to make this possible in the spirit of collaboration under the vision of ensuring data can help save lives.”
David Seymour, Alliance Executive Director, HDR UK, said, "A fundamental aim of CO-CONNECT is to address the challenge of linkage of high-value data assets with other data sources, in order to provide new scientific insights. This is at the heart of our work at Health Data Research UK and our role in the vital response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
CO-CONNECT (COvid - Curated and Open aNalysis aNd rEsearCh platform) will support access to information from 44 sources, standardising antibody data collection from across the UK and building a secure and trustworthy federated platform for researchers to access.
The data could potentially transform COVID-19 research, providing experts with key information about patient immunity to the virus and treatment outcomes that could ease development of treatments and therapies.
Nobel Prize winning poet and honorary graduate Seamus Heaney has described the University of Dundee as ‘having its head in the clouds and its feet firmly on the ground.’ The ability to be both aspirational and down-to earth and to blend ground-breaking intellectual achievement with practical applications, has given the University its distinctive character.