EU data portal launches to support COVID-19 research

The European Commission has launched a data portal for scientists studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus to speed up access to data sets and tools in order to bolster research efforts by encouraging data reuse and open science.

The COVID-19 Data Portal is intended to accelerate regional efforts to combat the virus by creating a central repository for storing and sharing available research data, such as DNA sequences, protein structures, data from pre-clinical research and clinical trials and epidemiological data.

Mariya Gabriel, the EU’s commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, described it as an “important concrete measure for stronger cooperation in fighting the coronavirus.”

“Building on our dedicated support for open science and open access over the years, now is the time to step up our efforts and stand united with our researchers. Through our joint efforts, we will better understand, diagnose and eventually overpower the pandemic,” she said in a statement. 

The initiative is a joint effort by the Commission, the European Bioinformatics Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL-EBI), the Elixir infrastructure and the COMPARE project, working with EU Member States and other partners.

It’s one part of a package of measures agreed on by EU leaders to encourage pan-EU coordination over research and innovation to fight the virus.

“Rapid and open sharing of data greatly accelerates research and discovery, which is essential to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” runs the blurb on the COVID-19 Data Portal website.

“An unprecedented number of scientific efforts are taking place worldwide in order to help combat the new coronavirus epidemic (COVID-19). One of the biggest challenges in this fast-moving situation is to share data and findings in a coordinated way, in order to understand the disease and to develop treatments and vaccines.

“To address this challenge, EMBL-EBI and partners have set up the COVID-19 Data Portal, which will bring together relevant datasets submitted to EMBL-EBI and other major centres for biomedical data. The aim is to facilitate data sharing and analysis, and to accelerate coronavirus research.”

The data portal is one of two connected pieces of what’s intended as a wider European COVID-19 Data Platform — illustrated in the below diagram — the other being SARS-CoV-2 Data Hubs, which will “organise the flow of SARS-CoV-2 outbreak sequence data and provide comprehensive open data sharing for the European and global research communities,” fed by inputs from national health data infrastructures and public health labs.

“To rapidly populate the COVID-19 Data Portal, EMBL-EBI will bring together COVID-19 datasets that have been submitted to its public databases, including ENA, UniProt, PDBe, EMDB, Expression Atlas and Europe PMC,” is how it’s explained on the site. “The data, which have so far been collated, include genes, protein structures, electron microscopy data and scientific publications.”

Data submissions to the COVID-19 Data Portal can be made here — where the website notes that: “Non-biological data of relevance to COVID-19, such as travel, trade, meteorology and social distancing behaviour are not managed within the European COVID-19 Data Platform, but where possible are linked to data within the system.”

In addition to the data platform, other actions agreed via the action plan include coordinating funding for relevant research; extending large EU-wide clinical trials; increasing support to “innovative companies”; and supporting a pan-European Hackathon in the end of April to mobilise European innovators and the civil society.

The joint plan’s “priority actions” will continue to be updated with input from the Commission and national governments over the coming months, it said.

Overall, the Commission said it’s committing “hundreds of millions” of euros in research and innovation measures to develop vaccines, new treatments, diagnostic tests and medical systems to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — though not all of this is new funding, since it’s factoring in long-term investment vehicles such as FP7 & Horizon 2020.

More specifically, it highlights the “rapid mobilization” of €48.2M for 18 shortlisted research projects — including work being done on rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests; new treatments; new vaccines; and on epidemiology and modelling to improve preparedness and response to outbreaks. 

It also flags hybrid support efforts — saying it has mobilized public and private funding of up to €90 million through the Innovative Medicines Initiative; and offered up to €80 million of financial support to CureVac to scale up development and production of a vaccine against the coronavirus.

Additionally, a recent European Innovation Council Accelerator call of €164 million attracted what the Commission dubs “a significant” number of startups and SMEs with innovations that it hopes will help tackle the pandemic.

The Commission’s press release also notes 50 ongoing or completed European Research Council projects which it says are contributing to the response to the coronavirus pandemic by providing insights from several different scientific fields — including virology, epidemiology, immunology, public health, medical devices, social behaviour and crisis management.