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£4 million data project to accelerate COVID-19 research

Wednesday, 28 October 2020
A new multi-million pound research project will help scientists across the UK to access the data they need more easily to help develop potential therapies and treatment for COVID-19.

Experts from the Universities of Nottingham, Dundee and Edinburgh, 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-CONECT 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 spreads 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 the data 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.

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.”
Philip Quinlan, Head of Digital Research Service at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Director in HDR UK

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.

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." 

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.”

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”.

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 researches 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.

Story credits

More information is available from Philip Quinlan, Head of Digital Research Service at the University of Nottingham at Philip.Quinlan@nottingham.ac.uk

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The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. Ranked 103rd out of more than 1,000 institutions globally and 18th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings 2022, the University’s state-of-the-art facilities and inclusive and disability sport provision is reflected in its crowning as The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 Sports University of the Year. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally. Alongside Nottingham Trent University, we lead the Universities for Nottingham initiative, a pioneering collaboration which brings together the combined strength and civic missions of Nottingham’s two world-class universities and is working with local communities and partners to aid recovery and renewal following the COVID-19 pandemic.

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