(Natural News) A major international database was launched this week to help study coronavirus infections with the aim of determining how rapidly new variants are spreading among people, whether the currently available vaccines are offering good protection against them, and how long people’s immunity to the virus is lasting. However, the fact that Google had a hand in its creation is leading to privacy concerns.
The new repository was launched with financial and technical Support from Google and the Rockefeller Foundation. It was created by a team of researchers across seven academic institutions in the United States and Europe and launched with information from 24 million cases across 150 countries.
This repository is collecting an unprecedented amount of information about individual cases in a single place. The information for each individual is reportedly anonymized and contains as many as 40 variables, such as the date when the person first experienced symptoms, the date they tested positive for the virus and their travel history.
It was developed after a shared Google spreadsheet used by epidemiologists around the world to track the disease became overloaded; Google’s engineers helped write computer codes to automatically upload daily COVID-19 data from 60 governments around the world in a standardized format while deleting duplicate entries.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers said that this type of data will be useful in helping determine how the disease is spreading. Researchers are hopeful that the database will allow them to monitor the vaccines and variants of the disease in the coming months and serve as a template for tracking real-time data from future epidemics.
If such a database had existed earlier in the outbreak, scientists believe that epidemiologists may have been able to verify that the virus was spreading from person to person frequently in China well before the World Health Organization admitted it – something that may have helped stop the pandemic from growing so far out of control.
Scientists have said that expanding the database to an adaptable platform for surveying other diseases in future epidemics would require assistance from a company or non-profit to move forward.
Will “anonymized” data truly remain anonymous?
Any time there is a public database like this, especially when Google is involved, there are major privacy concerns. Google does not have the best track record when it comes to protecting people’s data and has been the subject of countless lawsuits related to violations of privacy. Although the architects of the project reportedly consulted ethical and legal specialists about securely handling and sharing individuals’ anonymized data, there are also concerns about hackers being able to connect the data to specific individuals.
Anyone can register to access up to 8 GB of the data on the Global.health database. For roughly 12 million of the cases, researchers have collected data for a dozen variables; a tenth of them have more. It is not necessary to sign in to see the map view of cases, which can be broken down by variant and country.
The Global.health website says it is “The first of its kind, easy to use global data repository with open access to real-time epidemiological anonymized line list data.” Users can sign in with their Google account or by providing an email address.
Between outbreak databases, contact tracing apps, and vaccine lists, the risks to people’s health privacy are growing as the pandemic continues. In an ideal world, this database will give epidemiologists the information they need to understand this disease, but when Google is involved, the potential for problems is high.
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