Blue graphic shows a rendering of a coronavirus and transistor graphics

From a 17-year-old tracking and sharing COVID-19’s early spread on a website to a coalition offering cash prize incentives for developing coronavirus screening tests, numerous examples of pandemic-driven research and data-sharing collaborations worldwide are the topic of a new paper by University of Guelph researchers.

Their overview of dozens of collaborative projects to understand and combat the spread of the virus may offer ideas for similar boundary-crossing approaches to tackling other major challenges such as climate change, said Dr. Theresa Bernardo, an epidemiologist in the Department of Population Medicine.

Acknowledging the global pandemic’s health and economic toll on individuals and societies, she said the article’s many examples of innovative responses show how researchers, academics, industry professionals and citizens have banded together in various ways to thwart the coronavirus.

“To me, the paper sets a precedent for how to work together across sectors and disciplines and with greater agility toward a common solution,” said Bernardo. “Most people needed some good news in these trying times.”

Dr. Theresa Bernardo

For the paper, published recently in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, team members monitored news sources, journals, social media and other resources during 2020 for examples of COVID-19-related collaborations.

Those group projects took various forms, including scientific articles, data dashboards and data sharing agreements, hackathons, AI-enabled predictive models, and initiatives to make personal protective equipment, ventilators and screening tests.

The new paper groups more than 60 collaborative projects under five categories: knowledge, data propagation, crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence, and hardware design and development.

It is intended to provide a snapshot of past and current projects and perhaps inspire new initiatives born of necessity, said computer science professor Dr. Dan Gillis, who worked on the paper with Bernardo.

“COVID-19 has offered us this really unique opportunity for scientists, governments and citizen scientists to work together to try to solve and mitigate the pandemic,” he said.

Among examples of collaborative projects in the paper:

Beginning in January 2020, a 17-year-old in Washington State developed a website to track and share the worldwide spread of the disease. More than 2 million people had visited the site by early March; another million had visited by a week later.

Epidemiologists at U of G, the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children used COVID-19 information from media sources to assemble a Canadian data repository.

Among crowdsourcing initiatives, several tech giants teamed up with academic researchers to develop an app that allowed users to share symptoms and view numbers of cases in their community.

A global hackathon in March 2020 saw more than 18,000 volunteers from 175 countries propose solutions from health monitoring apps to software connecting gamers to mitigate social isolation.

Organizations teamed up to make 3-D-printed face shields and to repurpose factories to make ventilators.

Dan Gillis
Dr. Daniel Gillis

Already doing number-crunching to analyze COVID-19 data in early 2020, Gillis teamed up with Bernardo, who was documenting news sources about the pandemic, and PhD student Kurtis Sobkowich to develop a dashboard to track Canadian cases.

Bernardo regularly uses Twitter and LinkedIn to post news and information about the pandemic. As the holder of the IDEXX Chair in Emerging Technologies and Preventive Healthcare in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), she said, “I’m constantly looking for new ways people are using technologies and applying them to health. I act as a curator for scientific articles that I feel provide good answers to pertinent questions.”

She said she hopes the paper will encourage yet more collaborative efforts. “We need to look at ways to break down barriers and give people licence to try new things.”

That applies to research and outreach projects involving post-secondary institutions, said Gillis. “Universities have a phenomenal role to play. They need to step up. We need to get academic brains out of the university and working with other people.

“We need to do a better job of training people on how to be collaborative.”

The paper was co-authored by Sobkowich and OVC graduate student Russell Forrest; DVM student Luke Stewart; and Marcelo D’Agostino and Enrique Gutierrez, both with the Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization Regional Office for the Americas in Washington, D.C.

As part of the One Health winter seminar series run by the Ontario Veterinary College, Gillis will discuss aspects of modelling and data, science communication and collaborations in a talk called One Year, One Health to take place March 11, 2-3 p.m. To join, use password: U3d4eDg1OWJCaTJqTkl5RG00jQx7z09


Dr. Theresa Bernardo

Dr. Dan Gillis