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£4 million data project to accelerate COVID-19 research

Published: 28 October 2020

A new multi-million pound research project will help scientists across the UK to access the data they need to understand the COVID-19 antibody response.

Experts from the Universities of Nottingham, Dundee and Edinburgh, along with Public Health England, will build the infrastructure for CO-CONNECT (COvid - Curated and Open aNalysis aNd rEsearCh platform), a UK-wide initiative that will connect COVID-19 data derived from patient blood samples.

The project has been awarded £4 million by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the NIHR, through the UKRI-NIHR COVID-19 Rapid Response Rolling Call.

The aim of CO-CONECT is to build data infrastructure to ensure researchers can access the necessary information to answer fundamental questions around immunity to coronavirus, such as how it may prevent virus spread and generally how long immunity lasts.

The data could potentially transform COVID-19 research, providing experts with key information about patient immunity to the virus and treatment outcomes that could accelerate development of treatments and therapies. 

There is some evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection. 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 that can help to answer these key questions have been collected across the UK by a range of research groups and within clinical primary and secondary care settings. However because COVID-19 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 are not being gathered in a standard way that allows re-use for a range of research questions. 

This 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. 

Read more about NIHR COVID-19 research

This new 18-month project aims to ensure the same standards are applied to all COVID-19 antibody data collection, to make the data comparable and usable in research. It will provide researchers with a streamlined, automated infrastructure to assist with work into developing potential 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. 

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.” 

The CO-CONNECT project is being coordinated by HDR UK, the UK’s national institute for health data science. 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. 

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 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.

Read more about the CO-CONNECT project on the University of Nottingham website

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