Big Data Platforms for a Global Pandemic
In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, a Chinese Academy of Sciences program known as Big Earth Data Science Engineering (CASEarth) began efforts to organize data and information towards curbing the outbreak. CASEarth coordinated a national effort to develop a global big data platform for coronavirus (http://nmdc.cn/nCov/en). This platform has been publishing and disseminating timely, authoritative scientific data and information concerning COVID-19, including detection methods, electron micrographs, genomes, scientific literature, results from ongoing scientific research, and a collection of virus strains from the National Pathogen Microbial Resource Bank. These resources are valuable for scientific studies on COVID-19 and for experts active in prevention and control of COVID-19 infections. In addition to COVID-19 genome data, the system has so far integrated 3,135 coronavirus genomes and 32,865 nucleic acid sequences from 20,241 strains, separated from 496 different host types and 568 collection sites.
The platform ensures data quality, overcoming the challenges of effective storage, sharing, and integration of multi-source heterogeneous data from both domestic and international sources. The platform provides bioinformatic tools to mine, integrate, and analyze global vironomics data. The available datasets include information on virus species, nucleic acid detection primers, probe sequences, genotype and phenotype, gene sequences, and entire genome sequences—the first to do so for some datasets. This information is essential for research on virus mutation, traceability, and evolution.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) also used this platform to release information on the virus. Media and news agencies such as Xinhua, CNN and Reuters have used the available virus strain information and electron micrographs. Within 10 days of its launch, the platform received 6.26 million visitors, with 381,000 accessing it from outside of China, including Australia, Japan, U.K. and U.S.
The CASEarth platform is also being used to monitor crop growth, aiming to evaluate the status of agriculture in China during the pandemic. The big data analytics capabilities of this platform are being used to process multi-source satellite remote sensing data combined with other sources of data. For example, information was uploaded to monitor winter wheat prior to the harvest in early March 2020 and to evaluate rice crops in southern China. Big data and Earth observation technology are especially relevant to pandemic scenarios because of their applicability to food security.
A letter from the UN Secretary-General to G-20 Members notes that the current crisis presents the G-20 leadership with “an extraordinary opportunity to step forward with a strong response package to address the various threats of COVID-19”. The UN system is expected to play an active role in supporting national efforts in combating this global pandemic, in addition to the roles of WHO. Effective dissemination of reliable, verified, and up-to-date information is vital for healthcare managers, medical officials, and health experts, as well as for public awareness. Such a system can be quickly established through the UN to share knowledge and experiences gained from the member states to save lives.
For a long-term perspective, lessons from this global challenge need to be translated into a joint prevention and control network. To this end, we suggest to:
1) Emphasize development of capacity in emergency management and practices in the global agenda. Biological hazards, in particular human-to-human transmissible diseases, should be treated as a priority by all national governments and international organizations, as globalization has compounded their risks. Similarly, communicable disease in livestock that can threaten global food security should be a focus. COVID-19, Ebola, and Zika underline how important it is to break down the silos in disaster prevention and management.
2) The COVID-19 outbreak has evolved into the first truly global, systemic and cascading disaster and a real threat to global sustainable development efforts. Global initiatives need to address this challenge, which in retrospect was not given the attention it warranted. Due to the nature of this challenge, a new special Goal based on COVID-19 and targets in the SDG framework need to be introduced to address large-scale health disasters and risks and evaluate health facilities at scale, which are well beyond the scope of SDG 3 in its present form.
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