According to Science, epidemiologists based at Stanford University and University of California campuses have been requesting contact tracing records and other detailed COVID-19 data from the state and county health authorities to research for ways that will slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus in California. However, their requests between April and late June were repeatedly denied because of various reasons ranging from workload constraints to privacy concerns.

Failure to share important information with fellow researchers

Local academia thought the decline contradicts the norm as the requested data were de-identified and privacy regulations have been substantially relaxed during the pandemic for researchers to conduct related studies. They feel that the state has seriously undermined their effort to prevent a full-scale lockdown since no one in California nor at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has completed any basic epidemiology tests thus far.

To bring concerns to the next level, the data that were barred from researchers’ access are believed to be shared with a federal contractor, Palo Alto tech company Palatir under a $17.3 million contract this April. Revealed by Forbes, the money was part of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief fund. Palantir had signed a deal with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) subsidiary agency – the Program Support Center (PSC) to aggregate information from over 225 data sets that include demographic details, community-based tests and other state provided figures to make sense of the pandemic.

Palantir was under scrutiny because of its previous involvement with Cambridge Analytica and partnership with the US immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in controversial deportation effort. Previously, AIMed also wrote that Palantir was hired by the UK National Health Service (NHS) to develop virtual tools. The company came on board through Faculty (former ASI Data Science), a British artificial intelligence (AI) startup whose owner, Marc Warner is the brother of Ben Warner, who was recruited by the UK government as a data science advisor last December.

Ben Warner is thought to have produced data models in both the Conservative party’s general election campaign as well as Vote Leave campaign for the UK to leave the European Union. He is now part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). There is no evidence linking Ben Warner to Palantir or suggests NHS’ move to share data with Palantir was politically motivated. Likewise for Palantir’s deal with PSC.

Researchers are now seeking for alternatives

Nevertheless, without the data means researchers won’t be able to determine factors or a combinations of factors, be it age, gender, race, postcode, living conditions and so on, that are most responsible for causing COVID-19 patients to be hospitalized or even deaths. There will also not insufficient proof to signify that certain activities are more risky than others. For example, groups dining indoor versus dining in parks or beaches.

All these will affect how precaution measures are going to take place. Some clinics chose to conduct their research using community data to pinpoint where some of the outbreaks are, so that they can reach out to the locals, especially those underserved, for testing or health education.

Some academia have turned to other states like Florida and geared their research towards finding the source of the pandemic. They realized if the known sources of transmission mainly come from close friends and family, causal contacts with strangers out in the public may pose lesser risks and certain social activities may actually be allowed. Yet, the Florida data were also incomplete and this means the finding may subject to inconsistencies or even inaccuracies.

Still, researchers feel that this is the best they can do at the moment, as they are trying to overcome the hurdle of predicting the future without any present data.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.