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New advanced analytics research to deliver next level of insights into COVID-19


Expanding on the incredible work of the UK health research community in supporting policy makers to understand and respond to COVID-19, Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) and The Alan Turing Institute are working in partnership with research teams across the UK to support nine new research projects that tackle ongoing, urgent questions about the virus and support future pandemic preparedness.

The nine projects will be delivered by 16 collaborating universities across Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales. The projects, funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), include:

  • What are the differences in risk factors for severe disease between ethnic groups?
  • What impact will disruption to healthcare services have on health outcomes, and what will be the patterns of healthcare use in children and young people following COVID-19 infection?
  • Can we use data science and machine learning to predict which patients are at increased risk of hospitalisation following COVID-19 infection?
  • What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on outcomes in patients with Long Term Conditions?
  • What are the effects of COVID-19, vaccinations and “booster doses” in pregnancy, among children and young people, and on disease caused by different variants?

The projects will use advanced analytics, modelling, statistical and machine learning techniques; utilising and developing the data infrastructure that has been rapidly enabled for research into COVID-19.

In partnership with the network of Trusted Research Environments (TREs) in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, researchers will be able to access large-scale, national and linked datasets in secure environments, including viral variant and genomic sequencing data, outbreak-relevant data from clinical records, vaccination data including vaccine status and adverse events across the UK.

Showcasing health data expertise across Edinburgh BioQuarter, these new studies include one led by Professor Ewen Harrison, the University of Edinburgh Medical School, and another by Professor Aziz Sheikh, the University of Edinburgh, Usher Institute, and Dr Livvy Swann, from the Deanery of Clinical Sciences will also be leading on one of the projects alongside Professors’ Harrison and Sheikh:

All the datasets are discoverable and available to request access to via Health Data Research Innovation Gateway, the UK’s unified portal for the discovery of health data.

Each of the projects intends to leave a legacy for future research studies by enhancing the value of data by creating additional data linkages, improving the quality of data, and following best practice in open science, sharing code and tools. Project teams will engage and involve patients and the public in their work and use the Health Data Research Innovation Gateway to safely make their resources available for re-use by other researchers.

A total of 23 applications were submitted following a five-week process. The nine successful projects were selected by an independent panel that included clinicians, academics and patient and public representatives. Criteria for assessment included the proposed benefits to patients and the public, potential for new and important COVID-19 response insights, how the projects would utilise advanced analytics techniques and the health data infrastructure, and how the research would improve data for future studies.

The research is part of the COVID-19 Data and Connectivity programme, one of the National Core Studies, co-sponsored by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Government Office for Science. The projects will commence in November 2021 and are expected to complete by the end of September 2022.

Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser said: “ The ability to link largescale health datasets across the four nations is crucial and has enabled vital insights into COVID-19 since the National Core Studies were established. This programme will take the use of this data to the next level as we continue to improve our understanding of this virus”.

Professor Andrew Morris, Director, Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) and Lead, Data and Connectivity added: “ The quality of applications received to undertake this important research was exceptional. I am excited to see the successful projects progress over the next 12 months and how data science can be applied to address one of society’s most pressing health research questions.”

Professor Sir Adrian Smith, Institute Director and Chief Executive, The Alan Turing Institute said: “ The Alan Turing Institute is delighted to support the National Core Studies through this innovative research. Bringing together health data science, artificial intelligence and largescale datasets is a powerful combination that will enable cutting-edge analysis with the potential to deliver insights crucial to our understanding of the current, and future pandemics.”

Professor Ian Young, Chief Scientific Adviser, Northern Ireland said: “ It is important for Northern Ireland Health and Care data to be available for research via our Trusted Research Environment and open to discovery via the ‘Gateway’. It is essential that we can be part of studies that enable us to play our part in monitoring the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, inform our policies to control COVID-19, and allow us to explore the reasons behind variation in uptake of vaccination in Northern Ireland.”


The National Core Studies

The National Core Studies (NCS) is a £45 million programme established by Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance in June 2020 to ensure critical questions about COVID-19 could be answered quickly. As knowledge of COVID-19 evolves, the aim of the National Core Studies is to focus on the most critical questions for policy making. As well as addressing the urgent research need, the programme also supports the development of UK research infrastructure, particularly through “Data and Connectivity”.

Data and Connectivity

Data and Connectivity – funded through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and led by led by Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) in partnership with Office for National Statistics (ONS)– connects UK health data to support and accelerate research on COVID-19, enabling streamlined data access and analysis for COVID-19, supports the five other National Core Studies.

To date, the programme has made available 92 datasets for urgent COVID-19 research, accessible to approved researchers via the Innovation Gateway.

Insights enabled and supported by Data and Connectivity to date include:

  • Research demonstrating effectiveness of single-dose COVID-19 vaccination led by BREATHE – Health Data Research Hub at the University of Edinburgh, Usher Institute.
  • Research demonstrating inequalities in COVID-19 vaccination rates in England for the over 70s, particularly for people of black African and black Caribbean ethnic backgrounds.
  • Several studies investigating safety of COVID-19 vaccines – including a study showing that there was a slightly increased risk of specific blood clotting disorders after a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. However, the data also showed that risk was substantially higher and prolonged after contracting COVID-19.