On March 16, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy1 released an open dataset of scientific information on the novel coronavirus responsible for the ongoing worldwide pandemic. Titled COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, the dataset includes nearly 30,000 scientific articles about SARS-CoV-2 (the official scientific name of the virus) and other viruses in the broader coronavirus group.
The dataset will include not only published articles but also unpublished data provided by open sources specializing in health sciences and biology research. Equally importantly, the new dataset will be machine-readable, making it easy to use for machine learning purposes. The hopes are that with the help of the shared data, the global AI community will be able to rapidly identify approaches leading to virus prevention, patient treatment, and vaccine development.
We live through challenging times. The coronavirus pandemic takes lives and destroys economies, reveals the weaknesses of national health care systems and sheds light on the incompetence of some political leaders. But it also reminds us that we are all together living on this small planet of ours. We’re interconnected and interdependent - and we need each other. Let’s not forget that when the pandemic is over.
The crisis is also showing how openness and unrestricted sharing of vital scientific information facilitate faster development of the tools to fight the pandemic. The Covid-19 outbreak was first documented in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China at the end of December 2019. By mid-January 2020, Chinese researchers have determined the genomic sequence of the virus and shared it with the World Health Organization.
The publicly available sequencing data has immediately opened the door to developing diagnostic kits in China and other countries. Singapore-based Veredus Laboratories, a provider of molecular diagnostic solutions, was, perhaps, the first company to develop a commercially available diagnostic test by the end of January.
Drugs and vaccines are next. The first COVID-19 vaccines in China and the United States are expected to be ready for clinical trials in April. Academic scientist, pharmaceutical companies, and government agencies are teaming up to test more than 50 different compounds as possible anti-virus drugs and vaccines.
Fortunately, the willingness to open up and cooperate turned out to be as contageous as the virus itself. Nvidia is offering its powerful genome analysis toolkit for free to any researcher working on a Covid-19-related project. Canadian biotech company Bio Basic prioritizes all purchase orders of reagents needed for coronavirus research and ships these orders free of charge.
Make no mistake: confidentiality and intellectual property still matter for biopharmaceutical and other companies. However, what the coronavirus crisis has already demonstrated is that even the most competitive enterprises can put aside their protective tools and work with others to solve one of the most urgent challenges of recent times. Openness and caring for each other in time of crisis seem to matter to them as well. Perhaps, even more than secrets and profits.
Let’s not forget that, too, when the pandemic is over.
1A department of the United States government with a broad mandate to advise the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs.