VODAN-Africa researchers design a FAIR digital data health infrastructure that is helping in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic

23 August 2021• NEWSITEM

By developing an improved health data management system, the Virus Outbreak Data Network (VODAN)-Africa research team is enabling local and global distributed access to crucial data required to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, future disease outbreaks and general disease conditions.

Led by Professor Mirjam van Reisen of the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), VODAN-Africa is a project focused on addressing various issues that are common to health data management across the African continent. “Major challenges we are currently tackling include the deficiency in production of quality clinical data, lack of ownership of health data – especially when it is sent to foreign-based systems, as well as technical obstacles related to digitalization of data and regulatory differences across regions”, says Dr. Jeremia Pyuza, PhD student of the LUMC departments of Parasitology and Pathology.

Hindered research and care efforts

The combined effect of these issues is that health data from many African countries is unavailable, unusable or unreachable. Consequently, local and international research efforts are hindered, and points of care become deprived of the benefits of digital data. Pyuza explains: “The burden of disease in Africa is relevant to the rest of the world. For example, limited amounts of COVID-19 data from Africa raises concerns for global genome research, which requires a diversity of genotypes for accurate disease prediction – including on the provenance of the new mutations. Having a digital data infrastructure which is both human- and machine-readable is, therefore, crucial for providing early notifications and faster responses to disease outbreaks”.

Solving problems the FAIR way

To solve some of these data problems during the pandemic which initiated in 2019, VODAN-Africa’s international team of researchers designed an architecture that adopts the FAIR principle: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. “In this way, clinical and research data that has been locally generated, curated and held on-site at health facilities, partners or respective ministries can be made available to the rest of the world”. Thus, VODAN-Africa heralds an age where Africa can exercise its right to own, manage, analyze and benefit from its own data. The team’s gathered experience since the start of the project has been published in Advanced Genetics.

VODAN-Africa toolbox

VODAN-Africa’s current implementation network encompasses universities and hospitals in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya, Tunisia and Zimbabwe and is expanding to include South Africa, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Ghana. The initiative is supported by Professors and students from LUMC, as well as through the GO FAIR Foundation. Funders include the Philips Foundation, Dutch Development Bank FMO, the Dutch organization CORDAID and Google. Researchers also collaborate with Professor Mark Musen’s biomedical informatics group at Stanford University. Together with other medical doctors associated with the project, Pyuza signed a letter to endorse VODAN-Africa. Pyuza concludes: “VODAN-Africa is an essential tool not only to promote good decision-making, but also to facilitate communication and strengthen international collaborations that will ensure a better local and global response to future epidemics and other human diseases ”.  

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